Sunday, January 28, 2007

Letter from Soledad Prison

by Sara

The Sunday Rant this week comes from my younger brother, who is in jail again. Nothing surprising there, unfortunately -- he's spent a lot of time in California jails and prisons over the past 25 years, most of it on minor non-violent felonies of one kind or another, almost all related to drug problems and general bad attitude. This time, he'd been out for almost two years, and was picked up the week before Christmas on a parole violation. Word is we get him back again some time in September.

Last time around, he was in for over two years (his first major felony), much of which was spent at California's infamous Soledad Prison. (The photo above is of the fence at Lompoc, where he's also spent significant quality time.) Shortly before Thanksgiving 2004, he wrote our mom the following letter describing his life there. It's edited only for continuity and a bit of punctuation; the words are all his.

Dear Mom,

I received your letter yesterday, and I noticed you'd sent $ too. Thank you.

We are on lockdown status -- all of us. There was an incident in the hall outside my cell. An inmate was cut up pretty bad and nearly died out right in front of us. He was just left laying there for too long before help was summoned.

That was Wednesday. The investigation doesn't start until Monday, and lockdown will continue until they get a name. It's a very timely incident: COs [correction officers] get hazard pay until it is resolved. This close to the holidays, it only makes sense to put off the investigation as long as possible.

Your complaints about the new package restrictions are well warranted. However, it is only one wasp in the hive. There are lots and lots of other profitable ventures going on unbeknownst to the public.

Take money orders. State law P.C. 2085.5 states that mainline institutions must take 33% of all incoming inmate funds for "restitution." I guess I wasn't clear on that when I told you not to send more money. (Besides, [my wife] needs that money much more than I do. I'd rather she get it.)

This restitution is based on a mandatory $200 fine imposed on all convicted felons to become wards of the state. It's designed to compensate for another state law that guarantees $200 to inmates at release. It's called "gate money."

Another scam is the library. No, I don't get "points" [toward release or better conditions] for contributing to it -- I only feed the machine. Upon checking out a book, you sign a trust release for the amount of the book. These are processed every week. When a book isn't returned in seven days, you are charged for its full cost.

But availability to the library is only given every TWO weeks. I didn't know this, until I was charged for two. Both books were turned in at the next available date -- but too late to avoid paying for them. This way, one book will pay for itself over and over.

By the way, these books are ALL donated by inmates.

I was also charged for two T-shirts. I received them sleeveless, and was charged for destruction of state property. They'll go back to the laundry, and be re-issued to another inmate, who will be charged for them, too -- as was the person who got them before me. The shirts have cost me $15 apiece so far. They were made by inmates in Prison Industry Authority jobs.

So far, I've been charged $7.50 and $5.95 for books, $30 for the shirts, and $60 for restitution. I've haven't even tried being hit by medical yet....

Medical services are no longer free. You must pay for them before your appointment. If you have no money on your books, it's deducted from your gate money. If it exceeds your gate money, you are billed by the parole board. Failure to pay is a parole violation, and lands you back in [prison] for 90 days.

I have a friend [in a previous prison] who was given an appointment, charged for it, and stood in line for two hours at a time, two days a week, NINE times without getting to the doctor. He filled out another request to receive his medication (previously prescribed), and was charged again. He still had not received his medication when I left -- charged twice for medication he never got.

I thought if you wanted to put yourself in a position of an active role, you should know what you're up against. It's not wise for inmates to call attention to these injustices -- they follow you to your parole officer, and you are judged a troublemaker. So inmates do very little to resist the system the way it is. We all just want out, whatever it takes.

This current lockdown has little effect on me. I'm locked down 24/7 until I go before the classification board, anyway. I'm given 20 minutes every third day for a shower -- and THAT'S IT. But I'm relatively comfortable. I no longer wear that agitating orange suit. I'm in "blues" now.

I find it incredible the number of bunks I've occupied since the start. [He recounts eight bunk numbers at two prisons.]...and I'm not done moving yet!

I'd just as soon stay Level 3 if it's up to me. There are far less problems wtih the "well-seasoned" inmates (actually, "convicts") in Level 3. Level 1 is full of immature gang-bangin' punks with something to prove. They are "inmates." Cell living also keeps you more isolated from that than dorm living. It's much more like a home in Level 3. I'm going to ask to stay a Level 3 convict for my stay, but I don't think they'll let me. It's worth a try.

My cellie is a good guy. He's taking good care of me. He has a TV, radio, and coffee pot, and is very clean. It's a huge relief over [my last prison]. E is very smart, and funny too. We moved downstairs to a new cell the other day. He'd been in [the old one] for six years, so we are very occupied with remodeling the new cell. We sanded and waxed the floor, hung his shelves, concealed all the wiring with moulding made of rolled-up newspaper (which we can have now), and are getting ready to paint. E is having fun with it. He's teaching me a lot about how to cope with confined living. A good thing? For the time being, it is.

All in all, Soledad is a huge relief from [my last prison]. The food is exactly the same, though -- chicken, chicken, and chicken, four or five times a week. The portions are skimpy, which keeps us buying extra food at the canteen. Yet another profitable venture....

I can only receive embossed envelopes and money orders through the mail. All other items will be thrown out --- yeah, right. This is another scam. The list of allowable items changes from institution to institution, and no one is made aware of these things until after arrival. So things families may be used to sending to one prison are confiscated by another.

Oh, well. It's their world. I'm just living in it.

The real problem the California Correctional Officers Personnel Association. They're the driving force behind all of this. They're feeding at the public trough, and depleting funds at such a rate (while literally buying politicians their seats in state and local government) that the prison system must generate funds however it can. CCOPA is THE largest contributor to political campaigns in the state. It's a shame the public is kept in the dark about all these things. What goes on behind these walls is a dirty little secret.

The starting salary for correction officers is over $50,000 a year, not counting overtime or hazard pay. I heard a CO bragging about receiving an overtime check for $14,000. For one month. No kidding. Some people don't make that in a year.

My name has been butchered countless times by these supergeniuses -- just a hint about the quality of minds that are in control here. A couple of them obviously could not read, and others may have been misreading it on purpose. Upon correction, the most common response is, "Yeah. Whatever." I'm just a number and a commodity to them.

I'm not content to have these problems so neatly hidden from the people who are paying for it. It's not right that the taxpayers are kept from the truth. I'm a taxpayer, too, and I didn't know about this stuff until I got inside the fence. It's sugar-coated for the public. That's what I'm complaining about -- not so much the treatment, because I realize that I'm here to be punished. (And I feel punished, so in that regard, it works!)

Sure, we DO need prisons. Nobody knows -- I mean, really knows -- this better than I do. But it's the petty victimless crimes and the high rate of parolee returns that have accelerated the growth of the prison industry. Cute little names like "California Training Facility" ("CTF Soledad") don't help.

I'll be going to classification this week, maybe. I'll let you know what transpires. I'm thankful for the cellie I have now, and I hope everything else goes this well. I'm guessing about another six months of this, providing I get the credits the judge ordered.

Your loving son

There's nothing particularly frightening or violent in this letter. In fact, most of the complaints could easily be characterized as petty annoyances. Whining, even. After all, he's in jail, not vacationing on Maui.

But apart from all that, it's also a chronicle of specific dehumanizations that follow from a toxic culture of corruption that's permeated California's prison system. The corrections officers are conning the cons, arranging their lives around an endless series of scams that rip off both the taxpayers and the inmates. The CO's union is far and away the richest and most powerful union in the state; nobody gets to the governor's office without their generous support. And they've financed their lavish lobbying and campaign expenditures not only by working all the government angles, but also by bleeding convicts and their families through nickel-and-dime schemes like those described above.

Fortunately, Arnie's predecessor, Gray Davis, was especially and notoriously beholden to the union -- and since they backed Davis in the recall election that put Der Gropenfuhrer in charge, Arnie became the first governor in memory to get to Sacramento without much help from CCOPA. That's given him the political leeway to take some strong steps over the last couple years to begin dismantling the chokehold of scam artists like the ones my brother describes. Hearings have been held. Policies have changed. Supervision has increased. This stuff still goes on, but my brother says it's getting slowly, perceptibly better.

The reform movement in California is part of a larger wave of momentum that's gathering force nationally as former inmates, their families, policy experts, and public officials take stock of the chaos and disorder produced by 30 years of conservative "law-and-order" detention policies. Alternet has an informative and though-provoking article about this movement that's especially worth a read.

Conservatives like to jeer at liberals over what they consider our inattention to unintended consequences -- but the toxic hash their narrow-minded ideology has made of America's prison system is the penultimate monument (after Iraq) to their own blind inability to connect cause and effect. When you consider the role California's prisons have played in bringing racial tension to the boiling point across LA (as documented in the SPLC report I discussed earlier this week), it's obvious that this is yet another area in which punitive, corrupt far-right policies -- most of them designed to shovel money into crony pockets, rather to provide actual correction and rehabilitation -- have been taken to their most venal and inhuman extremes, and created far more problems than they've solved.

US incarceration rates are far and away the highest in the world, with about 3% of our population under the supervision of the corrections system at any given moment. It's beyond time for us to reconsider just what America's $60 billion-a-year prison investment is buying us -- and start shopping elsewhere for better solutions.

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