Perhaps it's a psychological smoke and mirrors trick to pay attention to real suffering and injustice in the world and make my own woes seem trivial. We are back in “all real estate, all the time” mode as the sale of our office building has gone all Chinese puzzle again. I was hoping the deal would be done before I leave in early August to take Spuds to school but it appears the negotiations will be protracted and my trip won't be distraction free. I prepare dinner with my shoulder hunched to hold the phone in place. The realtor and I go back and forth. I convey my frustration and he volunteers a story about another transaction that has dragged on for over nine months. I hang up. I call a friend who it turns out is apparently bored by my whining. He changes the subject. “How is Rover?” “OK,” I respond. The ancient dog's decrepitude has plateaued. He still eats and can manage to get into the car. My friend goes on, “Well, I hope he just goes in his sleep, rather than, you know...” I hang up and take a sleeping pill.
A week long binge on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black is a good distraction. Set in a Federal Women's Prison, the show is riddled with inaccuracies, the most egregious is that many of the crimes that inmates are purportedly sentenced for would have landed them in state, not federal, prison. The show is based on the story of Piper Kerman, a former debutante and Smith College grad who spent a year in a Federal Prison for smuggling drugs at the behest of her girlfriend. It is not a perfect show. Friends and family outside of the prison are portrayed as callow to the point of stereotype. Most of the inmates are victims of circumstance but the flashbacks to their crimes are, if implausible, incredibly satisfying. The showrunner is Jenji Kohan, whose Weeds jumped the shark about four seasons ago. Orange is the New Black, like Weeds, however is impeccably cast. I've never watched a film or series that's motivated me to check out each and every performer on IMDB.
We pay a visit to a real prison. There is a hunger strike in progress throughout the state. Governor Brown has requested a Supreme Court stay of the Federal Court order to reduce the prison population by 10%. Funny how Governor Moonbeam becomes Governor Law and Order when he is facing a reelection campaign, that will require heavy duty largesse from law enforcement unions. We have visited the men's prison in Tehachapi at least a twenty times. It is always a strange and unsettling experience to enter a situation where it is presumed that you have bad motives. We have made a couple stupid dresscode screw ups and have had to borrow appropriate clothing from the charitable “Friends Outside” which keeps a trailer near the visiting center. Typically from the time we arrive at the visitors center it takes about an hour and a half to reach the actual visiting room where we meet our friend Alan. The wait this time is much longer. Witnessing the release of three inmates is the silver lining. Two are in prison sweats and one wears dress-outs (clothing sent from home.) I wonder how many years of their lives the crumpled little trash bags they carry with them represent. They are greeted by family. The odds are very much against them but the real life emotion of this moment is more potent than any TV drama.
The climate is palpably different this visit. I attribute it to the hunger strike and perhaps the job loss that will result as mandatory census reduction is closer to becoming a reality. It seems a combination of ultra-heightened security and retaliation. I am turned away when the muslin blouse I'm wearing is deemed too sheer. The guard says, “You can see your undergarments.” I know better than to ask if he's wearing x-ray specs. I change into a black t-shirt.. Many more visitors are turned away than usual. I am permitted to keep a single car key but others are forced to surrender theirs. Attire that is typical of the waiting room is suddenly too tight or too short. Almost everyone, including the elderly, is patted down after passing through the metal detector. A mother is carrying five bottles of baby formula. She is only permitted to enter with four. She has to return to her car with the fifth. Visitors are allowed to carry $40 in either quarters or dollar bills for the vending machines. Ordinarily the officers flip through the singles quickly. Today each bill is carefully examined.
We finally arrive at the visiting room. Alan is surprised that the kids are with us. He hasn't seen either for several years and he is blown away that both are tall young men. We first visited about five years ago. Alan's scheduled release will coincide with Spud's graduation from college. Now, the release is four years away and after having served nearly twenty years, to Alan it doesn't seem that long. He has completed an A.A. Degree in business and also holds certificates in heating and air conditioning as well as welding. He is an assistant teacher for a welding class and plans to parole to Las Vegas where his finance lives and his skills will be in demand. Like the women in Orange is the New Black, Alan's sentence is due to an extraordinary stupid choice, but there were indeed extenuating circumstances. The Three Strikes law mandates a 23 year sentence. In states with no three strikes law the same charge would likely result in an absolute maximum sentence of five years. In California, prisoners sentenced under the Three Strikes Law are only eligible for a 20% sentence reduction for good time and educational accomplishments. Those not sentenced under Three Strikes are eligible for 50 to 66% good time reduction..
If Justice Kennedy doesn't grant Jerry Brown's request for a stay, the state will have to release 10,000 inmates. Actually, in order to keep pace with newly sentenced prisoners and relieve the current overcrowding in the county jails, the number will probably be closer to 20,000. If Kennedy upholds the court decision, there is an excellent chance Alan will be released. His mother is in Oregon and his fiance in Nevada. I promise I'll make a beeline to Tehachapi if he has the good fortune to be freed early.
Visiting ends at 2:45. At about 1:15 a guard announces that all of the inmates must leave for an emergency count and that visitors have to remain seated. Alan wolfs down a yogurt, his favorite treat from the vending machine and tells us that he probably won't return. The prisoners file out and it is announced they will be strip searched. The guards assure us that the inmates will indeed come back and tell us again to stay put. Spuds, unused to rising at 5 a.m. has chugged a couple of Red Bulls. Because he is a minor I must be at his side at all times. I go to ask the guard if we can be released from the visiting room for him to use the bathroom. Request denied. We are told to return to our seats. It approaches 2 p.m. It is clear that the inmates will not return. Spuds is squirming and miserably uncomfortable. I approach the exit door again and ask quite adamantly. Spuds is accompanied to the bathroom by an officer who watches him pee. After another half an hour we are permitted to leave and board the bus back to the visitor center.
Alan writes this week about the pending verdict and goes on, “I do stay focused on what I'm doing here. If it happens, great but I'm not going to be disappointed. I only have four years left to go regardless of all else. Sure, I hope for the best and yes, it's a total dream to think I could go home this year or next. It's like dreaming about hitting the lottery. It would be cool, but the odds are 7 billion to one...”
I feel guilty, given the bigger picture, fretting about money or office space or an old rescue dog who's had a wonderful life. After over twenty years in prison, to Alan, four doesn't seem like that long. I'm not saying I'm never going to stress again because I have a friend who is sanguine about the prospect of four additional years (he doesn't deserve) in a place that is difficult for me to spend even a few hours in. Alan is happy to have to serve ONLY four more years. There is a good chance that Justice Kennedy will uphold the court's decision regarding prison population but Alan tries not to think about it. Myself, I fantasize about meeting him at the gate and welcoming him to the new millennium.
I am emotionally exhausted and wish my brain had an “off” switch. Alan's serenity about facing four more years of time if Justice Kennedy sides with Governor Brown does remind me that what plagues me in recent weeks will inevitably come to an end. It won't take four years and through it all I get to go home each night to a bowl of popcorn, infinite TV channels, Ambien, and I guess, smoke and mirrors.