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Racial segregation, routine violence and chaos filled my sleep with nightmares and sweat. This is the impact of my stay in San Quentin Reception Center. I transferred there in 2006, leaving the “cushy” San Mateo County Jail behind.

Fear is the one word I would use to describe my emotional state during my time in San Quentin. Everything about San Quentin scared me: the physical structure, the guards, the other inmates.

The physical structure was large and intimidating. The corridors were narrow and many people had been stabbed or even killed within the constricted passageways. The cells were so small I could stretch out my arms and simultaneously touch both walls, yet they stuffed two of us in there.

Direct and purposeful intimidation came from the other prisoners. For example, in the showers, the racially segregated structure of the prison dictated that every race had a certain number of showerheads. The Black prisoners got five showerheads, the Hispanic and White prisoners each got two, and everyone else had to share the last one. Some of the more depraved people stared at other men’s genitals. The shy and the weak bird-bathed in their cells. Showers were every other day and I decided to take my chances. As uncomfortable as it was, I never had any problems.

Exercise Yard was only twice every seven days. It was concrete, small, and crowded. The entire area was also divided by race. The mixing of races was absolutely forbidden. I’d never seen anything like it before. Ever. Fights, lumps, blood and tear gas or pepper spray were as routine as the Yard period itself.

Every race has a “shot caller.” On my first night at San Quentin, the White shot caller boldly walked into my cell saying he wanted to talk to me and my cell partner. He explained that there was something called “mandatory yard.” He warned that if we didn’t participate, we would be stabbed. He was very matter-of-fact about it.

I was being forced to join a racial group and to take orders from men I wanted nothing to do with. Through their rules of separation and hate, they were trying to convert me into a racist, something I’ve never been before.

The really scary part was what happened when a guard walked by and saw three of us in the cell. I thought the guard would order the shot caller out, cuff him, and haul him away. Instead, the shot caller told the guard to come back in 15 minutes so he could talk to us. The guard did exactly as he was told. That’s when I began to understand the severity of my situation.

The chow hall — our dining room where we took meals — was another place where the ugliness of racial segregation showed itself. If I, a White man, accepted food off of a Black man’s tray, I could get stabbed. Whether I liked Black people was irrelevant; I was forced to practice racism with the state’s blessing.

I was overjoyed to be transferred out of that place. To be sure, I was moved to the San Quentin Reception Center, which is separate from the main part of the facility that had all of the great programs. In fact, at the Reception Center, there were no programs at all, not even chapel services.

My next destination was another of California’s notorious penal institutions, Pelican Bay State Prison. Pelican Bay was a much newer institution and more modern. The cells were larger with room for my cell partner and me to move around at the same time. The water was clean and the air was fresh. It was surrounded by redwood trees and the comforting scent of the nearby Pacific Ocean.

The racial politics, however, were the same, if not more intense. I was assigned a cell down the tier from some skinheads (a white supremacist group). They preached the same rules of separation I’d heard in San Quentin. To keep my peace, I purchased a sack of cocoa for them every month. That simple and childlike cocoa kept the wolves at bay. I felt all alone in that situation. I felt powerless.

Everything was fine for me until I saw an old Black friend of mine and I hugged him. The skinheads approached me and gave me a final warning. I had already violated racial lines once before. On an earlier occasion, I’d gone after a loose handball that rolled into the Asians’ territory. I instantly went to retrieve it and almost caused a riot. Running into another race’s area is seen as a threat; they think they’re being attacked. As I ran “out of bounds,” the yard went eerily quiet, everyone froze, and all eyes were on me, including the guards. I was lucky, I caught myself and stopped.

My college education opened the door for me to be assigned as a tutor to help others earn their GEDs. Some really appreciated my help and it was very rewarding for me. The position gave me purpose and helped me escape idleness. Through that position, I was able to gain respect among my peers without having to prove myself in some senseless way.

Lockdowns were frequent. With lockdowns came cell searches where guards ransacked our living quarters, often breaking what little property we had and mixing up our property with our cell partner’s property, especially mail and legal work.

After four and a half years at Pelican Bay, I was transferred to the state prison at Corcoran. Upon arriving at Corcoran, the guards gave an orientation that I found odd. They warned us that the White prisoners would stab us as soon as we hit the Yard. I knew something was fishy because I knew the guards cared nothing for us. So why the concern now? It seemed their aim was to convince us to go into protective custody. There were a few takers and then the guards escorted the rest of us to the general population.

Corcoran was pretty much the same story: racial segregation, individual riots and all-out melees, then punitive searches to follow. There were very few programs, and chapel services were canceled regularly. Due to the lack of programs and the routine violence, I stayed in my cell for most of the two years I was there. I gained a lot of weight, questioned my worth, and frequently asked where the rehabilitation was. I prayed for something better.

Eventually, my disciplinary-free record earned me the privilege of going to a medium-security institution. I immediately chose the state prison at Lancaster, California, also known as the Progressive Programming Facility (PPF). I knew this facility was a better opportunity for me, or at least that was my hope. I had heard that the PPF housed a population of guys just like me: guys who didn’t do drugs, weren’t into gangs, weren’t racists, and who didn’t separate themselves by race.

When I arrived, all of the beds were full. They put me in administrative segregation, what we call “the Hole,” until a bed opened up. The Hole was filled with prisoners who had lost all hope. There were a lot of mentally ill prisoners and men who meant serious harm to anyone around them. There were people whose doors and windows had to be covered because they walked around their cells naked or they masturbated all day. There were also a lot of prisoners on suicide watch.

Thankfully, there was a civilian staff member assigned to the Hole. Every day she would come by and say encouraging things; she would also bring a sheet of paper with the latest sports results and puzzles. After just a little over a week, I was freed from the hole.

The first mission I gave myself was to find the “White” area and see what the climate was on the Yard. I needed to learn the “rules.” Instead of being told a bunch of dos and don’ts, I was told that I was free to go anywhere and associate with anyone. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my back.

There were Bible study groups on the Yard, sitting in the grass. There was no hate or mean looks. Everyone respected the privacy of the others, and the talk was not negative or anti-social.

Since the Lord Jesus is a very important part of my life, I attend chapel services. To my delight, the chapel was open daily. We also have many outside speakers visit to give a good word or preach a sermon for us. I am always encouraged by their visits and words of faith. In addition to signing up for church, I signed up for the arts and crafts class. I am painting and learning to draw. The participants are helpful, approachable, and friendly.

With all of my years in prison, I have never been outside after dinner. But here, there’s Night Yard where I can walk, see the moon and the stars, and feel the coolness of the evening air. I can watch the sunsets, the wild cloud patterns. I will never again take them for granted. For years I used to look out of my tiny cell window and dream of experiencing the night. Now I can.

Here on the PPF, the guards are much more respectful, fair, and approachable. I haven’t seen or heard of any abuse by the guards since I’ve been here. For the most part, everyone simply gets along on the PPF.

What I’ve come to understand over time is that the PPF prisoners are striving to hold themselves to a higher standard. A standard that reflects personal and group accountability, pro-social ideals, healing, and making amends.

It wasn’t easy to remain disciplinary-free all those years at the other prisons, but being here at the PPF made it all worth it. Finally, I found a place that has some rehabilitation in it. The PPF is my slice of heaven.

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.

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Lawrence May

Lawrence May is a PJP contributing writer incarcerated in California. He has traveled to nearly 40 countries outside the U.S. and has written more than 50 stories, as well as his autobiography.