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Prison officials are paranoid. They must be—real danger comes with the job. Walk through a haunted house on Halloween and you expect something to jump out and scare the crap out of you. Prison staff—guards, medical staff, administrators, and contracted laborers—work in an environment that can become hostile in a blink, any time, any day. Even as an advocate for prison reform, I recognize that inmate populations must be controlled—intelligently.

Prison staff are closely knit to ensure their self-preservation. They work in potential combat zones watching for hints of insurrection. The array of diagnostical personality disorders (as defined by the American Psychological Association) squeezed into overcrowded prisons is stunning. The mixing and housing of human beings with incessant fears and anxiety and feelings of unrequited hatred toward others sets the stage for jumping offs—prison parlance for fights and riots. Add to the mix embedded gang cultures acting as a constant catalyst, and the efficient and safe running of a prison becomes an overwhelming task.

The welfare of prison staff is grounded in accounting for the whereabouts of every inmate at every moment. This is not as impossible as it may sound.

Daily Counts Matter

The operating systems of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is spelled out in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Operations Manual, which inmates and staff call the DOM. (When I entered the system, the department was called the California Department of Corrections. In July 2005, during the Schwarzenegger administration, the department was renamed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The reference to “rehabilitation” is just so much window dressing.) The DOM is the rule book by which inmates’ lives are run. Here the root responsibility for the count is inscribed: make sure everyone contained is counted. The DOM states that

the purpose of the count is to facilitate inmate control, accountability, and to expedite inmate movement throughout the institution/facility in accordance with the established count schedule as set forth in DOM 52020.4.1.

The prison system counting of inmates is called count time. Counts happen five times a day, every day, even while the inmates sleep. Every one of California’s approximately 133,000 inmates is counted separately, one at a time, every day, at the same scheduled times. Inmates in the infirmary are counted, and inmates in work details report back to their cells or dorms to be counted. Every empty bunk must have a legitimate reason for being empty. Some days I was off the yard on men’s advisory council (MAC) business, attending meetings with the warden’s representatives. (Each yard within a prison has two elected representatives who meet periodically with the warden or staff to discuss grievances, new programs, and matters of concern to inmates.) On those days an audit trail of my whereabouts was programmed into the Ironwood prison “daily”—a computer readout that pinpoints every inmate in the system, leaving a GPS-like paper trail of movement.

At count time, the entire yard is recalled, and inmates return to their bunks. Those in transit between facilities or at a local hospital for treatment are counted in absentia. During count, a hush comes over the entire prison, giving an impression like a charging beast slowing to a trot yet burning with fury.

The Routine

The morning count determines whether everyone has returned from breakfast. Guards in the commissary kitchen count potentially lethal cooking utensils where inmate labor is used to prepare meals. The prison population at Ironwood was about 7,000 in 2004–05, and all inmates were locked down simultaneously for the count.

There are no bathroom privileges during count. You could get shot during count if you’re seen sneaking into the bathroom to take a leak.

If you are in a cell during count, you’re locked in with your cell mate. If you’re in a dorm, the front door (the only door) is locked. Inmates are required to be on their beds for count. Guards make body counts and a complete tally is taken in about an hour. There’s supposed to be no talking during count, and all electronics are supposed to be turned off. There’s a buzz in the dorm about blowing the count and joking about some badass motherfucker who blew the joint. Radios are turned down but not necessarily off. The TVs, under the control of the guards, go into a techno-hibernation; the quiet was like velvet to my ears.

I developed a television phobia in prison during my transition to becoming an inmate. And I have not owned a television since transitioning back to the streets. The blaring of competing television noise in the racially segregated day rooms seldom stopped. The TVs were supposed to be turned off at midnight on weekdays and 1:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights, but the rule was seldom enforced. Guards allow the TVs to remain alive all hours; watching late-night programs makes their shifts go faster.

Sleeping with ear plugs became my required routine, and I still sleep that way to this day. I wondered if I compromised my safety by plugging my ears while sleeping. Inmates were attacked in their sleep, sometimes without known provocation. I decided to go for the sleep.

During counts, I would write letters, make journal entries, read, or take a nap. If one inmate is unaccounted for within the entire California prison system, every prisoner in every prison is locked down. No one moves from where they are; all transportation of inmates into or especially out of the prisons stops immediately. Trucks leaving the prison compounds are thoroughly searched for stowaway escapees, even under the hoods. Teams of guards rush to the surrounding public roadways looking for escapees in the brush or hitchhiking. Helicopters spring from nowhere. Guards, who usually carry only batons for protection, are now armed with guns and rifles that make them look silly but serious. Trained security dogs pack the yard. There are few actual escapes or attempts to throw off a count. The main reason for an off count is the miscounting of souls by one or more guards.

During the time it takes to complete a recount, bathroom privileges in the dorm are limited to two or three men at a time, as is going to a water fountain. If the lockdown gets into chow time, the food is brought to the cells and dorms. Walking in designated rows to pick up a tray while under guard and walking back to my bunk to eat was a welcome change. It doesn’t take much to break the monotony of daily routines in prison.


Prison Reform Issues Related to Prison Officials’ Paranoia

Prison officials have legitimate reasons to be paranoid about their physical well-being. What are the prison reform issues here? Here are some suggestions:

  • Overcrowding that causes squalid and unsafe prison environments
  • Lack of quality mental health interaction for antisocial inmates with personality disorders
  • Lack of effective drug addiction programs
  • Warehousing of people without engaging in rehabilitation toward jobs, improved self-esteem, and social integration
  • Influences of racism and gangs that keeps inmates stirred up

What other prison reform issues do you see related to ways to defuse the factors that cause paranoia—including inmates’—on prison yards. Use the comments section, and let’s start a conversation.

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