Friday, August 7, 2009

The Tehachapi Loop

The Tehachapi Loop

I sleep poorly the night before we drive to the California Correctional Institute to visit Alan, my penpal via the Jewish group Aleph. The kids are nervous but curious. They are also concerned about passing several hours talking with a stranger, a prisoner no less, without electronic entertainment or reading matter, or even a pencil to stave off boredom. I visited the women’s prison at Frontera over a decade ago but my memories of the visitor entry procedure are hazy and I presume the rules will be stricter at a men’s facility. I finally fall asleep only to wake up at 6:00 a.m., the time I’d planned to depart on the two hour journey.

I’ve read the visitor policy manual and also e-mailed back and forth with the wife of another prisoner who my penpal put me in touch with. We are advised to wear nothing containing any metal whatsoever so I don sports bra, blouse with plastic buttons and skirt with elastic waistband. Himself appears in public for the first time in his life in sweatpants. Spuds has lots of gym shorts but the 16 year old, having experienced a freakish growth spurt, reports at 6:10, after having advised me otherwise and with confidence, the night before, that he has nothing suitable to wear. I fling clothing around maniacally and find an old pair of sweats that don’t cover his ankles and assure him of the unlikelihood of meeting anyone he knows.

Originally Tehachapi was the site of a female facility, dedicated in 1933. It is referred to with a snarl in a number of films including The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. It was deemed too dangerous after a 1952 earthquake weakened the foundation and its 400 inmates were transferred to Frontera. A new men’s prison was erected in 1954 and now the facility sprawls over 1650 acres. There was a big expansion in 1985 and medium and maximum security sections were added.

We drive through the cool summer morning from Los Angeles to Kern County through wind turbines and gentle hills, which explode with lupine and poppies in the spring. We pass through Mojave and a huge graveyard of airplanes, some obsolete, some from defunct airlines and others simply parked there cheaply while carriers wait for the economy to improve and travel to resume as normal. A train rumbles down a mountain toward the Tehachapi Loop, a helix, where the track passes over itself, designed to lessen the angle of the grade.

Breakfast is at an old apple warehouse that has been converted into a countrystyle restaurant of the sort that would be happily habituated by life size cabbage patch dolls. We are motley and the kids examine the clothing of the other diners to determine which folks are also prison bound. I rush them through an overpriced lackluster meal. Due to budget cuts, Friday visiting days have been eliminated. I worry about large crowds and being turned away from the institution, which, while designed to house 2700 men, now houses nearly 6000.

Purse, Blackberry, Ipods and even the remote for the car alarm are packed in a Trader Joe’s bag and concealed under the seat, just in case the guards and firepower in the tower directly overlooking our car proves lax or inadequate. We enter the visitor’s center with a ziploc full of quarters, our driver’s licenses, original copies of the boys’ birth certificates, our visitor approval letters and a single car key.
We fill out the visitor forms and a swine flu survey which asks if we have a fever or sore throat, which if I did, like most people who have driven many miles to the middle of nowhere, I would have lied about. In retrospect and grateful that we are all the picture of health, it would be shitheaded, no matter how many miles we’d driven, to enter a facility that is so densely overcrowded while posing any risk of contamination. Medical services available in California prisons have been to be found in violation of the 8th amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. I hope that anyone who is feverish or sore of throat stays home and writes a long letter.

All of the signs at the visitor center are handwritten in a childish scrawl on scraps of cardboard. There are collages of crudely cut fashion photos, illustrating what is o.k. to wear and what is verboten. I know about blue and denim garments, but I notice first thing that gray sweats, like the 16 year old is wearing are on the not o.k. chart. I actually remember this from reading twenty pages of visiting protocol but in the rush to get out the door after oversleeping, I focus only on denim and blue and metal.

We plan that if the 16 year old is rejected for sweatpants, Spuds and I will enter and Himself will take the 16 year old some eight miles back into the town to purchase appropriate attire and return. The room is crowded. We are later than we’d planned. My heart is pounding. Some women of girth are bemoaning the lack of sport’s bras available in plus sizes. One portly woman confesses to wearing a bathing suit under her clothing. Those less resourceful full bosomed visitors are taken to a private room to endure strip search by a female corrections officer.

Three inmates are marched through the visitor’s center carrying mesh bags with their belongings. Family members are waiting. Three men are released from prison, and despite knowing the enormous rate of recidivism, watching these men walk into the arms of weeping family members is one of the most beautiful things I think I will ever see. Plus I wonder what they had to eat.

I am called to the desk. I have filled out the entry form without including my maiden name which appears on my driver’s license run together with Murphy. This became such an unpronounceable unwieldy mouthful that I jettisoned it years ago. This puts me and the kids, who are on my entry pass, back at the end of a long line. Himself is called before we are and made to deposit his shoes, wedding ring and glasses in a wooden box. I know how poor his vision is and how helpless he feels without his glasses. I watch him stumble through the metal detector and realize that as much as I whine about his table manners, he puts up with a lot of shit being married to me.

Himself is passed into a waiting area, where we cannot see him, to wait for the bus to the visiting room. I am now panicked that if the gray sweats are rejected, we will have no way to communicate that to him. I see a number of visitors sent away for various garment infractions. Finally my name is called but it is only to make photocopies of the sprat’s birth certificates after which I am told that I must return the originals to the car. I start to send the 16 year old on this errand to get it completed more quickly and am admonished by the officer that neither minor can be unaccompanied even for a moment so all three of us return to the car with the birth certificates. Back at the window, our visitor approval forms are thrust back at us. “You can’t take these in.” ”I thought we HAD to have them.” He tries to get us to make another trip back to the car while Himself must be fretting about our whereabouts but finally I ascertain that now that we are in the approved visitor system we will have no further use for the physical forms to visit the prison and I allow the officer to shred them.

I remove my watch and earrings and glasses and we put them, with our shoes, into a wooden box and pass, uneventfully through the metal detector, gray sweats and all. Himself is relieved until our green entry pass goes missing. We miss another bus to the visiting area while the guards search for it. It is finally found, our i.d.s are checked and our hands are stamped and passed under an infrared light. We board an ancient school bus.

A woman in an abaya and head scarf and her preteen daughter in a pink shorts set get off at the Level Four visiting area. This is the highest security level. A fit grandmother type in matching cropped capris and a colorful t-shirt disembarks at the lower security Level I and seems almost haughty about it. The driver announces Level II and we hop off. We flash our driver’s licenses and visitor passes in front of a camera and a gate slides open and then we repeat the process at another gate. We present our passes and licenses to the guard at the locked barred door to the visiting room. After a few minutes we are called up and the metal door is unlocked. A sweet faced inmate/worker with a tear drop tattoo asks if we have picture ducats, but alas we failed to buy them at the visitor center and so our visit will not be documented by photo. He seems sorry for us and guides us to our assigned table, gallantly pulling out my chair.

The large room is filled with numbered tables with plastic bags of quarters and vending machine items in various stages of consumption. At each sits, with his visitors, an inmate in bright blue scrubs emblazoned “California Prisoner.” We wait while my penpal is summoned from the yard. We watch brisk commerce in Coke (only sugar free is available within the prison because the real thing is used to make liquor) and candy and shelf stable microwavable sandwiches.

The inmates are not allowed direct access to the vending machines, nor can they handle money. No physical contact with visitors, except for a hello and a goodbye kiss or handshake, is permitted either. An exception is that fathers may hold their children. There are kids being hugged and kissed and swung and piggybacked in a fierce effort to cram months and months of love into a brief visit.

Alan, my penpal arrives. He recognizes us immediately because I have sent him a number of photos. He sent me only one picture of himself, a visiting room photo with his wife from a number of years ago. In the photo he looks surprised and sad and weary and I detected a hardness that would probably naturally evolve after years of incarceration.

I would not have recognized the real man based on this photo. His face is soft and his eyes are clear and have light in them. He looks younger than he is, attractive and robust. I remember from my visits years ago to Frontera how intense and satisfying it is to sit around a table and do nothing but talk for four hours. I worry the kids will go postal but they sit enrapt, only rising occasionally to visit the vending machines. They nearly drop dead in shock when I tell them they can get whatever they want, but when in Rome…I am in a daze the first few minutes, trying to synthesize the real person with the old photo and a thick sheaf of handwritten letters. My children, so obviously the spawn of a Jewish mother, are disappointed that Alan refuses to order anything but a Coke with our huge bag of quarters.

Alan intuits what the children want to know and over the course of four hours, he meanders through his story unsparingly but with a number of digressions. I am naked without my purse and keep reaching around the back of my chair for it. I realize how reliant I am on breath mints, eye drops and lipstick. Here I am stripped of all my props/ritual objects and poured into a flimsy bra. Alan shows us his Jewish tattoos and tells us about hitchhiking by himself across the country when he was not much older than Spuds. We talk about our mother’s boyfriends and family money weirdness and we share strange secrets.

Tehachapi employs about 2000 people as custody or support staff. The guards sit congregated at the door of the visiting room, glowering and ushering visitors through the locked door to use the bathroom. Occasionally one rises, lumbers over and meditates at the vending machine before choosing something that inevitably contains the USDA recommended amount of salt, fat and sugar for a whole week. Apparently fitness requirements for corrections officers are not enforced like they are for police. Alan discreetly points out a three hundred pounder waddling to the machine for a bag of chips and whispers, “I really trust that he’s gonna protect me in a riot.” I ask an officer if I need to accompany Spuds to the bathroom and the response is about 100% more officious than necessary. I return to the table and whisper to Alan, “Some of the guards are dicks,” and he smiles and shrugs.

Twice during the visit a guard shouts out “bathroom break” and inmates line up and one by one are escorted to the bathroom. Due to the decrease in visiting hours, some visitors are kicked out early to make room for others. The machines are refilled with chips and soda and sandwiches and a long line forms. The kids note someone eating at an adjacent table a product called “Riblets.” There is little fresh produce served at the prison except elderly mushy apples. The occasional arrival of a shipment of Fujis is a big event. Efforts to have inmates garden on the vast acreage of the facility have failed because prisoners hide weapons in plots of vegetables.

Alan misses a lot of things but he admitted that in some weird way the prison milieu has allowed him to step outside and examine the movie frame by frame and question some of the things he’d believed unquestioningly. He’s completed two college degrees and vocational studies with flying colors. He has studied Judaism. He is a stalwart husband and father to a family who is also being punished for his actions, which of course exacerbates his own punishment. He says wistfully that he misses dogs and tells us how some inmates, desperate to love another living thing, have tamed wild squirrels as pets, despite the fact there is a genuine risk of bubonic plague in the area.

I lobbied last blog for blogging to count as serious writing. I print this blog and send it to Alan every week. He shares it with other inmates and says my writing comforts them and they are glad to know that someone on the outside is concerned about their welfare. I take this over The New Yorker or literary prizes or stellar reviews. With this, my blog lobbying is done and the time I’ve spent, ever since I could hold a pencil, struggling with words, has led to one of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life. Not that I’d turn up my nose at a MacArthur grant.

The time flies as quickly as any time I have ever known. We say so much and only reveal how much more there is to say. Our entry passes are returned to us. I want to keep on talking but an announcement is shouted that visiting time is over. A kiss. A handshake. A toddler pried from Daddy’s lap. The visitors line up on one side of the room to be herded to the bus. The inmates form a bright blue line against the opposite wall and begin to remove their shoes in preparation for the search that will precede their return to a world where everyone wears a uniform.

We pass our entry permits and i.d.s in front of the camera. The gate slides open. I wait in line for the bus with a woman who has driven all night from Sacramento for a brief visit. She clutches a photo of herself and her boyfriend posed against a naïve mural of Disney characters someone thought would make the visiting room more kid friendly. I am sad to have no photo but soon we will return to the hard plastic chairs, at least less intimidated by the entry process and savvy enough to pre-purchase photo ducats, to continue the conversation.

We pass our hand under the ultraviolet light and surrender our visitor passes. We return to the car and I have the sensation of having been punished and get a palpable sense of how the sea of uniforms and barked orders and institutional food could crush the strongest spirit. We are homeward bound, where if someone speaks to me like the guard in the visiting room did, I can respond with cutting pissiness. Beyond the airplane graveyard is the Space Shuttle landing strip. Some hurtle into the heavens. Some heal their own broken souls from within the depths of hell on earth. The indomitable human spirit.

Shabbat Shalom


Fionnchú said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fionnchú said...

What I was trying to say: "Strong Convictions: Correction or Coercion behind bars" serves as the follow-through; you smoothly beat me to the punch and said all I would have much better already. xxx me

Cari said...

This blog makes me wonder what it would be like to be married to an inmate and have to go the route as often as she could...I've read a couple of books about prison wives, and it just seem a dismal, unpredictable process. Good work for going thru it. You guys rock.

Love, Cari

Jamie said...

I so enjoy reading your blog Layne, because in it I see the woman I was certain was there when I worked for you so long ago. You are so open and non-judgemental. You look at the whole person and believe in the greater good. A prison is one of the best of the worst places to make a person despair over humanity... and you with family brought and bring humanity to a prisoner who wouldn't get a lot of that behind those iron bars and inside his concrete cell. You are wonderful!

M.Perrault said...

ally glad I came across your blog while looking for pics inside of Tehatchapi Prison. My son was just transfered there last week. I visited him at Calipatria Prison and won't be able to have another contact visit with him until Oct.2010, due to the fact he is doing a S.H.U. term until then. So, I just wanted you to know as I read, I was there with you and it seems most prisons have basiclly the same rules and regulations. But I'll go through it, deal with it, and learn to live with it. My son is doing 50 years to life and is only 27(been encarcerated since 2006), I'm only 43, thank God, because if I was older, 15 years older, I don't think I could do it. Have a wonderful day and God bless you and your loved ones....This Too Shall Pass....

M.Perrault said...

ally glad I came across your blog while looking for pics inside of Tehatchapi Prison. My son was just transfered there last week. I visited him at Calipatria Prison and won't be able to have another contact visit with him until Oct.2010, due to the fact he is doing a S.H.U. term until then. So, I just wanted you to know as I read, I was there with you and it seems most prisons have basiclly the same rules and regulations. But I'll go through it, deal with it, and learn to live with it. My son is doing 50 years to life and is only 27(been encarcerated since 2006), I'm only 43, thank God, because if I was older, 15 years older, I don't think I could do it. Have a wonderful day and God bless you and your loved ones....This Too Shall Pass....