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Prison overcrowding
Adapted illustration by Teresa Tauchi. Original illustration by SirVectorr on iStock.

There are many problems facing the criminal justice system and the conditions of confinement here in the U.S. Our current system can only be described as broken at best and downright Draconian at worst. 

I’m 32 years old and have been incarcerated for 14 years, 11 of which I’ve served in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), housed in Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, Calif. One of the many failings of CDCR that I’ve encountered in my time here is overcrowding and the negative, sometimes tragic outcomes associated with the inhumane housing of people. 

Kern Valley State Prison is a maximum-security prison, which means that it is the highest level, non-solitary housing facility in California. It is designed to house the worst-behaved, most problematic people. This may seem like a logical, even prudent way to administer housing in a penal institution. But my experience suggests there are serious problems with how it is carried out in practice. 

First, as an incarcerated person, you have no say in who you’re housed with — housed, not living with. CDCR is acknowledging that they are merely giving you housing with a complete stranger, and you must accept whatever housing is given to you. If you refuse, you can be penalized, as I have. 

You are not allowed to preemptively avoid housing situations that you know could be trouble. In fact, you are expected to endure whatever violence, trauma, abuse or criminality you are trying to avoid, then deal with the possible punitive repercussions of these situations. Only then, after you’ve been negatively affected by the housing arrangement, are you possibly granted single-cell status or a housing situation of your choosing. 

In my time at Kern Valley, I’ve had a total of 15 cellmates, or cellies, only five of whom were by choice. Of that group, I’ve only known three prior to our being housed together; eight of the 15 were incarcerated for murder or attempted murder. 

Imagine for a second being forced to sleep, eat, use the restroom, wash yourself and perform some of your most vulnerable functions in the presence of a complete stranger who possesses the capacity to kill. Imagine how you would feel. What you would think. What you would do. What such circumstances would do to you mentally, physically and emotionally.

Now take into account that you are not only subject to your own psychology, but that of this other person who is dealing with his own traumas, reality and emotions. Now multiply this by the fact that you are being forced to coexist in a 6.5-foot-by-11-foot cage for 22 hours a day (and, during the pandemic, sometimes longer). 

Aside from the discomfort of these living situations, and the mental and emotional toll that overcrowding takes on the incarcerated person, these inhumane housing conditions have an effect that is visible, quantifiable and, in some cases, tragic. 

I’ve personally been lucky, and count myself fortunate, that I’ve been able to resolve most of my in-cell disputes with tact and diplomacy, and have only had two occasions of in-cell violence, neither of which resulted in serious injury or punitive repercussion for my cellie or me. 

Others have been less fortunate. 

Due to the cultural aspersions inside penal institutions against “snitching” or talking to the authorities about potential rule violations or crimes, most cases of in-cell violence that I’ve personally witnessed have gone unreported. Unfortunately, the results of some of these instances are so extreme, and permanent, that they cannot be ignored. 

I’ve witnessed, or am aware of, several murders in my time here at Kern Valley, some of which have occurred in prison cells. And just this year, three suspected murders have been identified, including two this month.

One notorious tragedy that took place in a cell is the case of Lawrence Philips, the star collegiate and NFL running back whose stunning fall from grace and subsequent criminal convictions led to a 31-year sentence at Kern Valley. 

After spending time in isolation, Philips was housed with a Damion Soward, who court documents reveal was a convicted murderer and gang member with the Crips-affiliated Inland Empire Projects Gang. One night in their cell, an altercation ensued, and the violence reached an irreversible conclusion, with Philips taking the life of his cellmate. 

According to a coroner’s report, Philips later died by suicide while being held in segregated custody. His family has questioned whether his death was in fact a suicide.

Perhaps this tragedy could have been avoided if the issue of overcrowding was addressed, and if people who showed violent tendencies were not required to live together. 

A society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Although people who are incarcerated are housed separately from the general public, they are still members of the society and have the inalienable right to be treated humanely, no matter what they’ve done. 

Moreover, everyone in society should have a vested interest in how prison conditions affect incarcerated people because it could easily impact you. Most people who are serving time will at some point be released back into society. When they are, both the person who is being released and the community to which they are returning will be better served if that person served their time in an institution that not only pays lip service to the idea of rehabilitation, but does the work to make it possible.

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.

Davon Blackstone is a poet and writer incarcerated in California.