Friday, July 20, 2012

On Guard

We visit our friend Alan, an inmate at California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. There is an 800 number to call in advance to confirm if there is normal visiting. Sometimes there are cancellations due to lock-downs or flu epidemics. There is a long message about visiting procedure which is impossible to bypass. It is repeated in Spanish. Then the caller selects the region and next the specific prison for a message regarding each individual yard's visiting status for the weekend. I am reminded of what a different universe we're on the verge of entering by messages like “Level 4: regular visiting for black inmates. No visiting for white inmates.” When the message pertinent to me comes around I realize that it hasn't been updated from the previous week. I wonder how much manpower it would take to post this information on-line instead of absorbing the cost of myriad calls to an 800 number. I decide to take a chance and make the trip. We set the alarm for 4:30.

I lay my clothes out the night before. The dress code is complicated and strict. There is a small charitable organization called Friends Outside with a trailer near the Visitor Center. They supply black sweatpants and t-shirts for those who are stymied by the long list of don'ts. I suspect we might have better reading comprehension skills than many of the other visitors, nevertheless, on a freezing winter day we had to return our coats to the car and once we had to avail ourselves of Friends Outside to borrow a t-shirt for Spuds. A white t-shirt with graphics is OK but a plain white t-shirt is verboten. I step into my black skirt and realize there is a tiny metal grommet which would create a problem with the metal detector. I make a hasty switch in the dark to a pink skirt and t-shirt. Black and pink are pretty safe. Other colors are all iffy. Clothes without pockets speed the process a bit. I remove my wedding ring and wear no other jewelry. I slip on a metal free sports bra and choose sandals I can step out of.

Once in the morning fumble Himself's driver's license falls to the bedroom floor. There's no way you can enter a prison without ID so he sits in the car with a book while I go inside. The guards tell him he can't wait in the car so he sits in the Friend's Outside trailer while I visit Alan.. Now we place the permitted items in a Ziplock bag the night before: $50 in quarters and single dollar bills, our driver's licenses, and an unopened pack of kleenex. Before we enter we remove the car key from the ring. Only one key, sans remote, is allowed. We've visited now more times than I can count and have gotten used to a lot of things that at first were quite jarring. I think though that it will always feel weird not to have my purse at hand.

We always stop at the same restaurant about five miles from the prison and eat the same breakfast. The road out of town is dotted with farms and there's a sign for an ostrich ranch. The entrance to the prison, stone pillars and razor wire, always seems to pop up suddenly. There is an other-worldliness that wallops me as soon as we cross onto the prison property. We arrive at about 8:15 am. Visiting starts at 7:45 and today the room is atypically crowded. There is a form to sign out and submit and then we wait to be called. There are signs advising that a transition to a new visitor intake process may create delays. We submit our forms and wait about an hour. Finally Himself is told that visitor information must be updated every two years and he is presented with another form to complete. I tell the guard that we've always visited together so there should be a form for me to fill out too. He says it's probably in another batch. Himself is called for processing. I wait by myself for about an hour. Everyone who was in the waiting room when we arrived, and most of those who've arrived after, have been processed. I suggest to the guard that my form may have been lost. I am told to return to my seat and continue to wait.

Finally I am called for processing although I am never asked to complete the supplemental form. I report to a table and given a wooden box for my bag and shoes. The gloved guard checks my driver's license against my visiting pass. He examines our money and car key carefully. He checks my shoes for contraband. I am slightly embarrassed by the Nordstrom Rack sale sticker I've been unable to remove from the instep. The guard tells me not to wear my pink t-shirt again because it is too close to white. I realize these rules are for my own protection but I don't think there's any chance that in a riot my flouncy pink skirt and faintly pink t-shirt would be mistaken for prison issue. I know though that I am at a prison and that instead of arguing over this inanity that the politic response is to thank him for letting me slide this time.

The metal detector is next. Fat people always set it off and even in my newly diminished capacity it buzzes. I am advised to pass through again very slowly, being careful not to touch the sides and am successful. I collect my shoes and the bag of money. Another guard checks my pass against my driver's license again and stamps my hand with ultraviolet ink. The bus has just left so there's a long wait for the next one. I notice guards coming from the front area to copy white forms like Himself has completed. I think about how easy it would be to move the Xerox machine next to the desk where the forms are being turned in as I watch the guards plod back and forth. There is palpable tension in the waiting area. Admission is taking forever and the consensus is that the guards are being particularly persnickety this day about wardrobe. One lady, with a fancy hairdo and Friend's Outside issued sweats and t-shirt doubles over sobbing.

We finally board a rickety school bus. A mom shushes her kid who complains about the lack of seat belts. The classification system has changed. What was known as Level 2 is now known as Facility D and I am still confused by this. Plus, the bus takes a different route than I'm used to. I realize when the bus stops at Facility C that I've missed my stop. I ask the driver if I can walk the 30 feet to the correct visiting area and am not surprised by his curt answer. I apologize. No response. The driver makes a complete circle and I presume he is just going to return me to the visitor center to wait for another bus but he continues back around to Facility D. I thank him obsequiously for going out of his way and he silently opens the bus for me to disembark.

There is a tower looming over the yard. I hold my driver's license and visiting permit up to a camera and the guard opens a gate so I can step into a cage. That gate closes and then another opens. There is a barred door at the entrance of the visiting area. I slide my driver's license and visiting pass through the bars and a guard tells me to wait. I can see Alan and Himself inside. I am finally admitted, pass my hand under the ultraviolet light and an inmate worker escorts me to our numbered table. Himself announces with great excitement that there are fresh avocados in the machines. I bid Alan a hasty hello and make a beeline for the vending area. Not only are there small avocados, 2 for $5, there are fresh mangos, also $5. There is a microwavable meal of roast chicken and rice that I've never seen before so I nab that too for $7. Inmates must stand behind a line and only visitors can operate the machines or handle money. The vending machine concession is run locally so in addition to the usual shelf stable items like Lunchables and frozen burritos, there are always a couple of homemade offerings.

I am probably more food obsessed than most people but in the visiting room, the vending machines are the main focal point for just about everyone. Partially this is because there isn't much else for distraction but a stack of bibles, catalogs of supplies that can be ordered for inmates and a table of board games. Also, the machines sell items that are not ordinarily available to the inmates. There is very little fresh produce provided in prison and drinks containing sugar are forbidden. This is because fruit and sugared soda can be used to distill pruno, the infamous jailhouse hootch. Once the machine ate $5 and I received a handwritten reimbursement check from Tehachapi several weeks later. About two hours into the visit the vending area is cleared and workers restock the machines. Inmates and visitors hover outside the boundary line eagerly and plans are made to score new offerings. I suspect this is a lucrative little business.

Himself and I are just as excited as Alan by the avocado and mango. It's been a couple of decades since he's had either. There are plastic forks and paper towels available which are asked to use “sparingly.” This strikes me as pretty literate signage for the venue. It seems daunting to dissemble and consume a mango and two avocados without a knife but during Alan's stupidly long sentence he's honed patience and ingenuity. He uses a plastic fork to poke tiny perforations between flesh and rind and then peels away the skin. Himself loathes both avocado and mango but he is proud of himself for having spotted the rare fruit and he beams with pleasure as Alan pops the tiny neat sections into his mouth.

The conversation leaps from subject to subject but after so many visits we click into an easy banter and no one is uncomfortable with brief silences. Alan is younger than we are but his sense of the world outside is informed mainly by newspapers, magazines and network television. He has never operated a cellphone or a computer. Fortunately he was able to complete college study before Governor Schwarzenegger put the kibosh on prison personnel proctoring exams which pretty much killed all of the higher education programs in California prisons. Alan has also been certified in air conditioning repair and is currently earning a welding certificate. I think he stands better odds of finding work after his release than most parolees. I think that returning to a world he only knows from tv and magazines after twenty five years will be his biggest challenge. We try to fill in the picture a bit and assure him that when he is released in five years we will help him with acculturation.

Visiting hours are over. It's time for the final kiss. The inmates line up against one wall and the visitors stand opposite. We head back to the bus with elderly parents, loyal girlfriends and children. The inmates are searched and then return to the dorm. Some will have a visit the next weekend and for others it will be months or years. There are lifers who will die here. Some will parole but without improved coping skills, or preparation for entering a vastly changed world, will likely be back behind bars again soon.

It's called California “Corrections” but this is like calling the ultra rich “job creators.” The system is all about punishment. Alan is exceptional in his resilience and commitment to self improvement but more commonly, broken people end up in prison only to emerge even more damaged. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, recidivism is a plus as far as the all powerful correctional officer's union is concerned. Programs aimed toward rehabilitation have been radically slashed. It is politically expedient not to be soft on the bad guys or even kids who are at risk for ending up stuck in the our revolving door criminal justice system. The union however gives big bucks to politicians and salaries and benefits of prison personal are pretty much sacrosanct.

Michael Santos is incarcerated in a federal prison. He was sentenced at age 23 to 40 years for cocaine sales and will be released in October of this year at age 49. He has written extensively about prison life and culture. He notes that several guards have taken umbrage with him for referring to them as prison guards and not “corrections officers” He refers to a job description which contains duties relevant only to guarding and not correcting. My own experience has been that some of the guards are obnoxious power trippers but I've encountered some who are genial and helpful. My aspersions aren't at the individuals but at the definitions of their jobs.

We let the elderly and moms with kids board ahead of us and catch one of the last buses back to the visitor center. We turn in our passes and pass our hands again under the ultraviolet light. The guards are eager to go home and even though most of the visitors face a long trip home, the bathrooms are all locked up. The only alternative is to cross the lot and wait in line for the single restroom in the Friend's Outside trailer. As I leave the prison I feel, restored to normalcy, a physical rush. The grim setting and the room full of inmates and the families who are also punished for their crimes is bittersweet. But I feel good about Alan and his future so I can detach myself a bit from this enormous sorrow. Still it is hard to control the urge to burn rubber when I depart the gravel lot. It isn't the inmates or their loyal and long suffering visitors, it is the guards I can't get far enough away from. It is the sensation of someone whose judgment I wouldn't necessarily trust having complete control over me. It is a powerlessness like none I've experienced before.

I receive a letter from Alan a few days after our visit and I am not surprised at how happy he's found his time with us. He thanks me for the avocado and mango. He says he can't wait to barbecue for us when he's released. He promises to figure out something vegetarian. How wonderful it will be to see him someplace other than a drab and crowded room. I wonder how it will feel to him, after 25 years, to not have his every move observed by a glowering guard in the requisite mirrored shades.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

I'm glad Alan liked the fresh fruit, and your account, of course, rings true. I think what adds to the cultural difference felt once you pass the double doors is the pressure that we civilians have to be obsequious to officers as well as, naturally, the prisoners do. This makes both sides culpable, and in our post-9/11 security state where one of the few growth industries (although given pension costs and state budgets even this may slow despite that most powerful of all state unions--next to teachers, police, and firefighters?), you get a stronger sense of what in diminished echo are the conditions endured by Alan and his neighbors for decades on end.

Regarding Santos' book (he may be out by now), it's very popular. It's one of the few titles I see in many libraries' relevant section. I saw a water-damaged, much-read copy remaindered from the Lincoln Heights branch, and on there's a lot of mixed reviews besides mine. For the guards' side, the journalist Ted Conover's "Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing garners similarly polarized reactions.

It's telling that both "Inside" by the Federal prisoner and "Newjack" by the writer who had to train to be a "corrections officer" in order to get the inside story no guard would tell a reporter document so well the guard culture and generate such disparate reactions from often prejudiced or biased readers. I hope your audience takes time to disentangle the romance and the stereotype from the truth you diligently note--and the moments I may add when certain guards smile or joke, as they bond briefly with those under less stress than themselves, in what can never be an easy situation to face daily, for all concerned and committed. xxx me

P.S. Most guys would not call your blouse pink--it's more a very faint off-white with a pinkish faded hue! Pink for us may connote a much more vibrant or bold shade. That being said, that blouse is not quite white, but many of us straight men tend towards a considerably reduced visual and verbal color vocabulary.