I was incarcerated for two years from October 2003 to November 2005. Following is a review of my October 12, 2013, journal entry:
I returned to CIM, a California prison in Chino—this time as a visitor. My buddy Marcus, whom I met at Ironwood State Prison, has been my pen pal since I left in November 2005. Marcus’s term won’t be served until 2018. Through his letters, he gave me updates about the conditions in the state’s penal system. Marcus has no outside family or friends and was desperate for a visit from a familiar face. I applied for permission to visit him and was approved.
CIM’s general population are housed in a depressing prison environment first opened in 1941. I had been to the facility for several weeks during transports from Ironwood to Orange County for legal proceedings. I knew my visit would conjure up old “painful stuff in my head,” but I worked through those fears using a lot of self-talk.
To my surprise, driving through the entry of the fortified compound came with ease (I can leave when I want; I can leave when I want). I parked in the designated visitor’s lot (Yes, visitor!). The place still looked like a movie set: endless glistening looped barbed wire topping tall chain-link fencing, high-rising guard towers punctuating the landscape, and the distant San Gabriel mountain chain adding to the sense of confinement. In clear view was the sally port where in June 2004 I first entered the prison, having arrived in a CDC bus, legs and hands shackled. (The California prison system, before July 2005, was referred to as the California Department of Corrections (CDC). Thereafter, the name changed to the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR).)
That 2004 bus ride remains ammunition for nightmares and flashbacks. The bus had no creature comforts. The seats were made of thick molded plastic with no give. My right wrist was chained to the left wrist of a silent inmate. We never spoke, not even to exchange names—what did it matter? His empty left eye socket was filled with a dirty blood-stained cotton ball. When he saw women passing by in cars, he shook in his seat with something akin to a panic attack.
Let the Visit Begin
I arrived at the yard at 10:30 a.m. and quickly got my bearings by talking to other waiting visitors. I eventually found the correct line for processing into the prison. While waiting to be processed, I struck up a conversation with a lovely lady from Irvine, California. She orientated me to several visitor protocols at this particular prison. She’d been regularly visiting her son for nineteen years of a thirty-two-year sentence for child molestation. She seemed to find genuine comfort in telling me to hate the sin; love the sinner. She and I stood in the intensifying desert sun talking about general prison-related topics. I never told her about my firsthand information— it didn’t seem relevant, and the thought of talking about myself didn’t feel right.
At about noon I’d made it to a point in the line that resembled an airport TSA processing area. My visitation approval papers were checked and rechecked. My driver’s license was reviewed several times, and my shoes, setting on a counter, were inspected four times. Before being cleared for passage through the metal detector, the female guard looked at me—actually stared at me—and said “No green shirts—got another one?” I told her I did, back in my car. I put on another shirt, returned to the same line, and went through the same monotonous processing. When the same female guard looked at me displeasingly and said: “No blue shirts—you got another one?” I asked, “How about red?” in just below my shouting voice. She nodded her approval. I had forgotten that prison guards wear green uniforms and inmates wear blue jumpsuits during visitation. Visitors are not allowed to dress like inmates (Yes!).
I was set to visit Marcus on the D yard, a medical facility for mentally and physically disabled prisoners. My papers gained me easy access through the several checkpoints before entering a park-like setting. It was a beautiful autumn day in the high desert. Prisoners in their clean blues labeled with bright yellow “CDC PRISONER” on their backs and down their legs walked hand in hand with wives, mothers, daughters, sons; they played with their young children. The relaxed, almost gleeful atmosphere was periodically shattered by the boom of a faceless voice over the loudspeaker: “No prisoners’ arms around visitors.” Without much of an acknowledgment or pause, the park-like environment, shattered by the harsh verbal intrusion, returned in a few seconds.
I waited ninety minutes before Marcus came out from the bowels of a distant building into the sunshine. The delay was caused by an unexpected shutdown of the yard from a fire accidentally set by inmates. Marcus said some guys were cooking processed meat on a converted water boiler and the place filled up with smoke. Our visit lasted about an hour. I bought Marcus the traditional microwaveable cheeseburger. When I handed the hot package to him, his face flashed with pleasure. “Look at this,” he mused, feeling the heftiness of the burger, “it’s beautiful.” The smell, feel, and heft of the warm food flashed me back to when I received manna during visits (I will never eat a microwaveable cheeseburger again!).
We finished the visit, without touching, and I exited the yard after my papers were checked several times. While walking back to my car, I experienced my one and only internal gasp of uncontrolled anxiety. In an adjacent lot, neatly parked in parallel rows, were the unmarked commercial-sized green CDCR transport buses in which I had been transported on different occasions between prisons and county jail.
The sight caused a strong memory of the silent seven-hour ride in a molded plastic seat next to the guy with no left eye. (Flash!) In the driver’s-side back corner of the bus was a phone booth–sized fenced area where a guard sat watching us. In his hands was the largest double-barreled shotgun I’d ever seen. He poked the gun through the mesh of the protected fencing; I saw its blackness with my peripheral vision. Before the bus moved, the guard shouted in a voice dripping with distain: “Anyone who says one fucking word in this fucking transport will be shot.” We believed him. (I’m not back on the bus; this is just a painful flashback that will pass!)
I gained a lot by going back to prison to visit Marcus. I learned more about myself by reexperiencing the prison world, and I came to one very concrete conclusion—I don’t want or need to do this again. I’m better off working for prison reform from the outside. (Maybe someday the flashbacks will end.)
Let me know what prison reform issues you see from this experience.
Photo courtesy of 123RF