Crime Story has received permission to repost pieces by incarcerated writers working with the Prison Journalism Project. The Prison Journalism Project helps incarcerated writers and those in communities affected by incarceration tell stories about their world using the tools of journalism: gathering and testing facts, writing with nuance, texture and insight and reaching a thoughtful audience. You can follow the Prison Journalism Project’s work via their monthly newsletter.
If the local news anchor reported a story about eight women living in a 19-by-24-foot studio apartment, red flags would fly high about subpar living conditions. Yet that is how most women live within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
There are eight women living in a 19-by-24 foot cell containing four bunk beds, two sinks, a toilet stall and a shower stall. There is a barred window behind two of the bunks looking outside and a small window between the remaining two bunks looking into the hallway. The door is secured and only open during “unlocks.” This allows inmates to come and go for authorized time out of their cells (medical appointments, school, job and recreational time, etc.).
Some news media have made much lately about the lavish conditions of inmates. There were reports of smoked oysters being sold at the canteen store. The fact that this so-called luxury item is something few inmates could afford or would even enjoy was omitted.
The reality is that canteen food is limited to highly processed, salty, carbohydrate-saturated foods that might survive a nuclear winter such as dehydrated beans, crackers and ramen. There is nothing fresh or healthy about the choices. In the following paragraphs, I hope to convey some of the realities of prison confinement.
The confinement of prison takes on many layers. The restrictions that permeate prison life are physical, emotional, spiritual and mental. Each prisoner must decide which restrictions he or she will resist and which he or she will brokenly accept. The battle rages between remaining an individual and being a prisoner. Some days it is hard enough just to remain human. Some restrictions challenge a person’s willingness to live at all.
Physical restrictions are the most apparent and the most challenging. You may only go to the places that you are designated as “permitted” to go. If you are assigned to C – yard, then you are not allowed on A, B or D. If you are not assigned to a job in a certain area, then you are prohibited from going there without a written pass. There is no going to a friend’s residence or stopping by the canteen window.
Within the yard, you may not go into buildings you are not assigned to. Within your assigned building, you may not go into rooms other than the ones you are assigned to.
Red “OUT OF BOUNDS” lines litter the building floors, yard and walls. Disciplinary action may be taken for any infraction or for being somewhere at a time when you do not have specific permission to be there.
A girl stopped by a sick friend’s room to drop off some soup she had made. Since she stepped inside the room, she was given a disciplinary write up for being “out of bounds.” Her punishment was loss of dayroom for 30 days. This loss meant she had no access to the phones to call her family for a month. These restrictions are meant for the manipulative and criminally-minded inmate but punish all equally.
Each prisoner is keenly aware that you may be physically held and restrained by force at any time the staff deems it necessary for the safety of the facility.
Within your room, there are restrictions of the door being locked and the lack of privacy. Your bunk is open and exposed. You may have up to seven roommates whom you cannot get away from when the door is locked. With the number of people in your room, you are restricted on how many people can be up at the same time. Walking to the restroom can create a traffic jam, if more than two people are up at the same time.
The space between two bunks in the middle of the room is less than 3 feet. The restroom offers no privacy as there is a window in the top and bottom of the door. The same is true of the door on the shower. No bodily function is performed in private. Your morning grooming is at one of the two sinks in view of the room or in front of your locker, also in view of the room. You must make space for your bunkmate and sidecar so they may also get ready at the same time. This claustrophobic condition is a contributor to in-room violence. If you have personality conflicts or domestic issues, the room that is already small gets a lot smaller.
The rules dictate what you can wear and where you can wear it. Certain attire is designated for work, facility ward, main yard, meds, chow, etc. The rules not only say what you can wear but also how you can wear it. You must wear it as it came out of the package. Altered clothing is considered contraband. Rolling up pant legs, taking in a seam or other alterations are considered a violation and will make the clothing item “contraband.”
The fact that some staff will turn a blind eye occasionally, or even usually, only adds to the landmine feeling when you are reprimanded for improper clothing. Clothing and grooming is a way that people distinguish themselves, so this restriction is both physical with a touch of emotional and mental. Makeup is allowed in subtle colors only. Hair is allowed to be wild or shaved or anything in between. If you wish to cover your hair, there are many rules regulating that.
Another physical restriction is what you may consume. Technically, you are not supposed to consume drugs or alcohol. You are restricted to eating the limited selections of food allowed in the chow hall, canteen or the quarterly boxes. Unless you are well provided for, you will be restricted to consuming the foods provided in the chow hall. Nutritional supplements are limited, as is exercise. You may be allotted several hours a day to exercise, but that will be contingent on your fellow inmates not getting into fights or the staff calling off work. The weather may also affect your access to program opportunities.
Programming is also another form of restriction. The prison will assign you to work or to school. You may try to get a particular job but ultimately it will be up to your counselor and other staff members. It would not be unusual for you to be on the waiting list for a program and yet see someone not on the list get the position you seek simply because of his or her networking.
The personal property you may accumulate is also restricted. There is a list of items and quantities that you are permitted to have. You may purchase items from only the approved vendors. Gifts, payment and anything you purchase from another inmate is considered contraband and may be confiscated. There is no personal privacy so your property may be searched and taken at any time. Creature comforts are limited to what you are able to purchase and what you are willing to risk being taken away.
Communication is another form of physical restriction. Communicating with the outside world is essential to maintaining relationships with family and friends. You may make 15-minute phone calls up to 3 times a day. But the hours of the phone are restricted and you may only call when you are not assigned to a program.
A person who works in early jobs will only be allowed to make calls in the afternoon and night (if the day room is open). Their work day begins at 7 a.m. before the day room is open and the phones are available, and they do not return until right before the afternoon unit recall. Letters are delivered at the pace of the pony express and at the discretion of staff. If the mailroom is short staffed then mail might be delayed by weeks. Emails are available now but also require screening and may be delayed hours, days or weeks.
Communication within the prison is also restricted. Your access to inmates assigned to live on other yards is limited. Notes and letters are often traded on job sites, classes and in groups, but they can be confiscated if found. Inmate to inmate communication is a learned skill to many new prisoners.
There are a limited number of prisoners who came from a middle class, non-gang, non-drug related society. Those inmates have the biggest learning curve when transitioning to prison life and learning to communicate.
Even basic interactions are a field of landmines. There are women from all over the state and from all walks of life. There are women here who are millionaires. There are women here who were homeless. We have women here who have advanced degrees and we have women here who can barely spell their names.
When communicating with women from gangs, it is important to be aware of which gang they are with. Too often, I stumbled into a situation of not knowing if a gang was from the northern or southern part of the state.
The Old Guard (OG) in the prison have their own code although this code is being ignored by the new young criminal element. The old ways say that the elderly should be respected. When communicating with lifers who have been in prison for a long time, I try to be sensitive to what is not a part of their lives.
Most of these women have never held a cell phone. They do not know technological terms. They never had email, and some never drove a car. To effectively communicate with them, I need to be aware of their perceptions.
Most lifers are known for being angry. Living year after year without hope can make you this way. It is important not to talk about going home, out-dates, or even too much about life beyond these walls. That world is gone to them.
I have heard that male prisons work more as collectivist culture. They stick together to make things happen. Women prisons are an individualistic culture. The women focus on “what is in it for them”. Women will abandon the group if they feel it will achieve their personal motives faster. This is why the men accomplish more reform and change in the prisons than women.
Friendships in prison tend to be more diverse among women. Female friendship tends to be shallow and functional. Women might get together for a group, class or a personal project. Once the goal is accomplished, they drift apart. Even the romantic hook-ups that take place are this way. They rarely last.
Managing conflict is something that most inmates must learn in a group. Life is full of conflicts. How that conflict is managed will determine the course of a person’s life. In prison, it usually leads to a black eye, a write up and a lockdown cage.
The inmate who is just trying to survive will hold everything in until they can’t anymore. They will then take it out on the next person that pushes their button. The reaction to the conflict will be disproportionate to the situation because the angry person is unleashing the anger of the current situation plus a lifetime of stuffing emotions. Some women are here because they did this in their life and that led to the death of someone.
Power is a rare thing in prison and many feel the need to find some. Once they have a small position of power that comes from being the anchor in a room, having a job that uses their skills (expertise currency) or giving them access to someone (social network currency) or something of value (resource currency), they turn into monsters. Some women will use their looks, manipulation skills and sexuality (personal currency) to get what they want.
These power-grabbing prisoners will cause conflict because they expect you to acknowledge they are more powerful than you are. Some insist on demonstrating their power by flaunting their ill-gotten goods, or manipulating staff into performing a task so that other prisoners will see their power and influence.
I handle conflict in prison by avoiding it as much as possible. I got a night job – one of three in the facility. This allows me to work when others are sleeping, and I can sleep when others are awake. My social interaction is limited but still unavoidable. I still live with others, go to school and have to walk to appointments.
In prison the competition for material goods, drugs, affection and even a place in the med line can lead to conflict. There are those with such low self-esteem that they are too accommodating.
The problem is once you become accommodating it is as if you are labeled as “prey.” In prison, there are classes to help prisoners learn when to separate from a situation, when to push for domination (protect your rights over the rights of others) and when to compromise.
Prison is a society outside of society. There are criminals and convicts. Criminals are those who hold onto their criminal behavior and have no intentions of changing. Convicts are those who happen to be convicted of a crime. Criminals are the ones who challenge the staff, rules, security and safety of the facility.
Most of the prisoners are just convicts, but there is a large portion of the population that are criminals.
The sad part is that the restrictions and confinement of prison are based on the actions of the criminals. The skepticism of the public that a person can reform is based on criminals, not convicts.
The convicts are drowning in the confinement and time dictated by the actions of others. This is especially hard when so many of the convicts are here to change. It is easy to see why so many embrace the mentality of “why bother” and embrace being a criminal.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact checked.