When there’s plenty of time to think about life inside and outside of prison.
A prisoner has nothing but time on his hands to deal with while on lockdown — 24 hours until the next breakfast, eight hours until dinner.
One Sunday afternoon, I was hanging out in the law library, reading new case law, published in the legal paper, the Daily Journal. It was just another day, where about 50 inmates were crowded into the cramped library, which has a maximum capacity of 25 prisoners.
As I read the paper, I heard the clacking of five typewriters. Inmates typed their legal briefs. I caught glimpses of conversations from a few inmates behind me. The topics ranged from poor medical care to the tragedy of another lifer dying of old age. Other conversations could be heard in the distance.
Suddenly, the chatter of voices filling the law library vanished, as an abrupt announcement crackled through the loudspeaker.
“CODE 3! CODE 3! EVERYONE GET DOWN ON THE YARD! GET DOWN!”
It was 2:15 p.m.
The majority of inmates looked confused, not knowing what that meant. Of course, the old timer convicts knew, but kept their mouths shut.
“CODE 3 is a prison riot,” whispered one outspoken jailhouse lawyer, an everyday fixture in the prison law library.
Conversations picked up again, this time asking what might have happened, how long we might be locked down, who was involved, what races, and so on. In prison, everyone knows everyone’s business. The walls have ears. Each day is full of drama, some real, some created by rumors.
Fifteen minutes later, I looked out the law library window and observed medical staff rolling four inmates on gurneys towards the back exit gate reserved for ambulances. The inmates were then lifted into four separate ambulances, to be transported to an outside hospital. Their faces were wrapped with white bandages, meaning they got cut up pretty bad. We were not able to tell what races were involved, due to the bandages.
I immediately turned in my legal books and newspapers to the clerk at the front desk and came back to my small cubicle, where an old convict and I talked about the old days of prison life to pass the time.
In the early to mid 70s, there was only a handful of state prisons in California holding about 26,000 inmates. Due to the political climate at that time, there was a different breed of prisoner. When authority tried to oppress or take away privileges from the prison population, prisoners rebelled and fought back.
Such rebellion nationwide, whether by violent or non violent means, led to prisoners obtaining the privileges of having a television in their cell, the ability to receive care packages from family, conjugal visits, weights, etc. A lot of men’s lives were lost in the struggle so that future generations of prisoners could do time with dignity.
Prisoners then ran the joints. They did everything. As a result, prisoners had tremendous power. Prison gangs from every race were adamant about forcing people to comply with their objectives. If you didn’t comply, you were eliminated.
Murders and stabbings were part of everyday life, especially at the three most infamous prisons: Soledad, Folsom, and San Quentin. Prisons were gladiator schools where one either did whatever it took to survive, or perish.
Races were united, when it came to the benefit of the population as a whole.
As new stiff crime legislation and laws were enforced in the mid 80s, the prison population boomed, and naturally, prison construction as well, along with the hiring of more prison guards.
A powerful political union emerged: The California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The union influences legislators to pass bills which restrict inmates’ rights, or laws which keep prisoners locked up for longer periods of time.
Faced with the prison population explosion, the California Department of Corrections, in an effort to take away power from prisoners, implemented security housing units (SHU) where they could lock away gang leaders or leaders of disruptive groups, including instigators, for an indeterminate amount of time.
The only way out of the SHU is to either snitch (debrief against the gang) or to die there.
The most infamous SHU Units are at Pelican Bay in Crescent City, and at Corcoran Prison in Corcoran, California. The inmates housed there are locked down 23 hours a day, in windowless cells, with no phone access, strictly non contact visits, and one hour of recreation in a tiny caged yard.
The SHU is designed to break down the inmate psychologically over time with “sensory deprivation.” Indeed, it is punishment in an inhumane way, but it is effective in reducing the number of murders, riots, and incidents statewide.
By locking up leaders, the prison administration regained power over the population, allowing prisons to run more smoothly.
Where before inmates would never fathom snitching against a fellow inmate because he would be found out and dealt with, today, snitching is common and accepted.
As in free society, it’s no secret that prison officials use snitches to solve a high percentage of investigations. We are desensitized to the snitch, after seeing a snitch as a regular character in the shows “Starsky and Hutch,” “Hunter,” or crime dramas like “Law and Order” or “America’s Most Wanted.”
Without a centralized leadership in the prison system, prisoners begin to watch out for themselves and their own best interests, not the interests of the general population. Over the last decade, prisoners have lost weights, conjugal visits, family care packages, seen reduced visiting days, and must now meet grooming standards, and wear ugly prison issued clothing which says, “CDC PRISONER” on it.
What has stopped prisoners from coming together against oppression when there is strength in numbers, with 160,000 inmates strong currently housed with the CDC? FEAR. Instead of facing fear from being disciplined by their own race, there is fear from being “corrected” by prison officials. Inmates fear things like being sent to the SHU, getting a “third strike” for a petty offense, or blemishing a prison record, which would blow an opportunity for a parole date.
Prisoners have grown comfortable with what little they have left. So prisoners fight each other, sometimes for the most petty reasons, to maintain what little pride and dignity they have left.
At 5:30 p.m., nearly three hours after the initial alarm, the librarian said the corridor was clear to go back to the cellblocks.
The old convict went his way, I went mine.
When I got to my cell, a lockdown notice was on the floor.
Indeed, a racial riot had occurred. Everything was about to be restricted, pending investigation of the incident; no yard, no phones, no canteen, no dayroom, no visits — nothing until the prison authorities finished their investigation.
At 7 a.m., my cell partner and I are awakened by the sound of a bell ringing, notifying us it was time for breakfast. Guards worked in the dayroom, preparing the paper trays to feed us. Ten minutes later, a guard opens the slot door and shoves the paper tray in. While inmates eat their breakfast, guards clean up and prepare to pick up the trash from every cell.
After trash pick up, a prisoner has nothing but TIME on his hands to deal with while on lockdown — 24 hours until the next breakfast, eight hours until dinner.
Time to think about what life is like on the outside: The people, the cities, the intimacy of a woman; to dream about what it’s like to be around people who mean you well as opposed to being with people who intend you harm, people with whom you can never let down your guard. In this environment, compassion is a disease that can kill you. During lockdown, there’s time to think about what it would be like to demonstrate the good in you and not be judged as weak.
Watching television, our only real window on the world, you realize that the things have changed on the outside. Yet inside these walls, things remain the same. Time is suspended and only the faces change. Each riot, each incident or lockdown, is similar to the one in the past. A repetitive script known too well by each prison generation, and the violent outbursts end in cruelty and suffering.
As time progresses, the circle of contacts with the outside world becomes smaller. During lockdown, it’s hard not to reflect on what few friends or family one still has left. Contact with the outside world keeps a prisoner from falling into the abyss of becoming an institutional zombie. To lose contact with the outside, to be left alone behind prison walls, is to live and breathe the institution and its surroundings to the point where it becomes the norm, the only thing one knows.
Confined to their cells, and faced with nothing but time, prisoners deal with lockdowns differently. Some man sleep all day and stay up all night watching television. Some vegetate in front of the television for 18 hours. Others read, write, draw, paint.
I find lockdowns the perfect time for spring cleaning. I go through all my personal property and organize everything. I clean all my clothing by first soaking it in a bucket or plastic bag with detergent, then hand wash it. The goal is to keep busy.
Most prisoners live with a cell partner they dislike. A lockdown intensifies the tension because you see his face 24 hours a day in such a small space. Cell fights between cell partners are common during lockdowns. It sometimes takes a brawl to get things to run smoothly again.
It’s the third day of the lockdown and we are finally afforded a shower. This presents the opportunity to run up and down the tiers, to talk to other inmates and obtain magazines, newspapers, books. You find out the details of the riot, what it was about, how it all went down, and who was involved.
I reflect back to riots I actually observed with my own eyes. You actually feel the tension on the yard before it erupts. It’s like watching PBS nature videos, the prey and the predators. Predatory inmates group together and charge in for the attack. The ensuing fracas shows human beings in their primitive state, the prey fighting for their lives, the predators, in red tooth and claw fashion, inflicting pain and harm.
As the melee unfolds, the guard’s voice over the intercom yells out, “GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” Yet, the brawl continues for up to 10 minutes before guards can organize to break it up. While the uninvolved inmates lay prone on their stomachs, hugging the ground, guards rush in with pepper spray, swinging their batons, still giving the involved inmates an opportunity to stop, before further force is used.
Yet the prisoners continue their assault, caught up in the moment. The cries of the injured men, still being beaten and kicked, their pleas to stop ignored, can be heard throughout the yard. The angry voices of men whose eyes have been sprayed, the seriously injured who fall to the ground in agony, the blaring of the loudspeakers, mix in a chorus of pain and anger and fear. It permeates the prison grounds.
You see the small group of inmates stabbing one inmate as the guard in the tower brings out a rifle and shoots a bullet to the ground, as a “warning” shot to stop. Not until the guard in the tower shoots an inmate’s leg, does the melee finally stop, as prey and predator throw themselves to the ground, signaling the riot is over.
More guards rush to contain the scene while medical staff are summoned to care for the injured. Gurneys are rolled in from all directions, followed by more guards, some carrying non electric gurneys. The scene turns to a bloody mess as the injured — sliced, punctured, and damaged from homemade knives or altered razors now scattered all over the yard — are lifted onto the gurneys. The Investigations Squad arrives, guards dressed in black jumpsuits, carrying crime scene equipment with video cameras. They will analyze the crime scene, recording the faces of every inmate on the yard, and picking up the weapons.
Meanwhile, other guards work on handcuffing and escorting the obviously involved inmates who are not seriously injured, taking them to a holding cage where they will be interviewed and questioned and processed to the “hole,” pending further investigation. A few hours later, a guard announces on the loudspeaker for each race to report to their housing unit, one housing unit at a time.
When the inmates line up, they are strip searched, and inspected for any cuts or bruises. If there is any indication the inmate was involved, he is taken to the hole.The lockdown officially begins once all the inmates are back in their cells.
It’s hard to believe that riots such as this can erupt over something as simple as disrespect, a $20 drug debt, or the failure of a race to discipline one of their own. On the seventh day, we are called in for an “interview.” Prison officials interview every inmate of each race involved to find out information. Most inmates don’t talk, and try to get out of the room quickly. They don’t want to be labeled a snitch. The longer one stays in the interview room, the more it appears that he is giving up information.
The “interview” process allows prison officials to interview inmates, giving the opportunity for someone to describe what happened, who was involved and what triggered the riot. Into the 27th day of the lockdown, most men are about to strangle their cell partner. You can only take so many farts! Men become desperate.
The paper trays of food delivered by guards, have small portions of food, in comparison to larger helpings served in the chow hall. Men go to sleep hungry since they are not afforded access to the canteen. Men who have wives or girlfriends think their lady is out with “Sancho,” since they have had no visits or access to a phone.
So when the next round of interviews occurs, men are more likely to talk. And they do, at least some of them.
The following day, dozens of men are “rolled up” from different housing units to the hole. The administration now feels confident they completed their investigation and have all those responsible or involved in the hole. Normal program resumes. When the yard reopens, representatives of the two conflicting races, meet and communicate, settling their differences.
Behind the scenes, the Investigative Squad Unit, the guards in the black jumpsuits are watching, hidden behind the tinted black windows in a building behind the guard tower, documenting who the leaders are.
Everything is back to normal, for now….
Written by anonymous while doing time in California.