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California National Guard Soldiers support local first responders in rescue operations due to flooding in Monterey County, California, March 11, 2023
Flooding in Monterey County, California, March 2023 (Photo courtesy of the California National Guard, CC BY 2.0)

In early 2023, much-needed rainfall overwhelmed California’s drought-stricken Central Valley. Back-to-back atmospheric rivers caused flooding of homes, businesses and farmland in Kings, Kern and Tulare Counties. 

Despite flooding in all three counties, only two were included in the presidential disaster declaration for California. Arguably the most vulnerable flood-prone area of the three was left out: Kings County.

The Kings County city of Corcoran is home to 22,000 residents who provide most of the labor for the local farmlands. Located in Corcoran is also one of the state’s largest prison complexes, California State Prison, Corcoran, and California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility. The prisons house a combined total of 8,138 incarcerated people. 

Corcoran is a unique area. It used to be a lake basin and swampland. Walking the prison yard, you can find small green rocks that can be polished into shapes like hearts or bear claws. It is petrified seaweed or moss, and here we call it California jade. Seashells with a rainbow sheen can be found by the thousands all over the prison yard. 

But this also means that the prison was built in a dead lake prone to flooding, and is arguably indicative of how little the state values our lives. 

When the flooding started, I was housed in CSP-COR’s “Hole,” or short-term restricted housing unit, and had been since November 2022. From there, I watched the reports on television that floodwaters were 3 miles away. Pictures of submerged cars flashed on the screen. 

As we waited in our cells behind steel doors for an evacuation order, thoughts of Hurricane Katrina entered my mind. There were news reports of how officers there had abandoned a local jail in their rush to save their own families. They left the prisoners locked in their cells, and the water rose through the bars.

The weather has been permeating the cells at CSP-COR for some time. In summer months cell temperatures reach over 90 degrees, and when you factor in the heat index from the humidity pumped in by swamp coolers, it makes it hard to breathe. And when it rains, water drips down cell walls and through light fixtures in the ceiling.  

They called me for transfer amid my fears of drowning, and I’m now housed in San Quentin State Prison, near San Francisco.

Thank God for me, but what about everybody else? And if the prisons survive the flood this time, will it survive the next one?

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.

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for and an advocate for mental health.