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Interior of Alcatraz prison with prison cells on one side
Photo by jpldesigns on Depositphotos

In some yards, it happens annually. In some prisons, it is done monthly. By some standards, it should be done weekly, and in many buildings, it is done daily. You may be missed from time to time, but whether you’ve been incarcerated for 30 minutes or 30 years, your turn eventually arrives. Across California, from the snowy mountains of High Desert State Prison to the hot deserted lands of Ironwood State Prison, you will be impacted. Therefore, when it’s your turn: “Do not fuss, even though it is your stuff.” It is only a cell search.

There is this moment when your stomach clenches and your heart begins to race. When you hear the keys coming in your direction, the jingle gets louder and louder. Without hesitation, you get off your bunk to see what’s going on, and it hits you like a punch in a boxing ring. Your internal alarm immediately begins to go off: “Intruder alert. Intruder alert.” 

And sure enough. They wear that vindictive grin and have a stoic look in their eyes that says, “Bad boy, bad boy, whatcha gonna do? We comin’ for you!” They arrive, papers in hand, and the door pops open.

The violation and humiliation begin. They demand that you squat and cough, hand over all your clothing and shoes, stand in nothing but your boxers and T-shirt. It does not matter if it’s 110 degrees or 30 degrees, the walk of shame ensues and the degradation commences.

They enter your place of rest and invade, picking it apart piece by piece and space by space in search of any contraband. Every box that you have beneath your bunk is pulled out; each item of food is lifted, moved, inspected. If that wasn’t enough, they go to the shelf and start again. If you have changed any casings or bottles, or consolidated any products, they’ll be confiscated or discarded. This process can last from 10 minutes to three hours, with no regard for one’s need to eat, take medication, use the restroom or put on some clothes.

The icing on this stale cake — the mold on this white bread — is that they leave your cell looking as though it was hit by a tsunami.

This invasion of one’s privacy and violation of one’s property can be very stressful and overwhelming, which can lead to an environment of hostility and violence. Unfortunately, this procedure may never change. No matter how this process makes one feel, the bottom line: “No fuss, even though it is my stuff!”

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.

Frederick Dew is a writer incarcerated in California.