Caged: In City Jails and State Prisons Print E-mail

20040520(San Diego Reader May 20, 2004)

Finding yourself in jail or prison for the first time unlatches a simple conundrum: You can’t know what you’re about to face because, had you known, you might have avoided the crime or, at least, taken more care not to get caught while committing it. Lock-up sucks. When you don’t do as you’re told (by guard and race boss alike), you suffer. Aren’t you supposed to suffer your punishment? Yes, but like anything, there are degrees: It’s up to you, son, how difficult your time here’s going to be. It’ll be easy—say, easier—if you cooperate. With whom? With the deputies, the correctional officers (CO’s), and the other prisoners, an array of aliens you would never trust on the outside, let alone on the inside of a holding cell or penitentiary.

Consider this man’s wretched tale, the first time he was put into the San Diego Central Jail. It began during his arraignment. A substance abuser, the man was already in a treatment program when he was charged with a felony. He believed the judge would release him back to the treatment program. But instead, the judge set his bail at $100,000 (which the man couldn’t post) and directed deputies to lock him up.

The man started sobbing, dropped to his knees, howled that there’d been a mistake, all of which, he said, the guards, who were dragging him away, "don’t suffer very easily." They handcuffed him and took him to a safety cell—hard rubber walls and a drain in the middle of the floor. He was stripped and given a garment—a polyester vest that goes "to your navel." The cell "is cold," he told me. "It’s got feces, blood, urine, boogers." He couldn’t sleep. There were three or four other cells nearby, so "you hear the grief" from those men, too. Food was slid through a slot in the door. Cold sandwiches and apples. A psychiatrist, once a day, spoke through the slot: Are you going to hurt yourself? Are you ready to listen to the deputies? Left there for 48 hours (under constant video surveillance), he learned that resistance, active or passive, was futile. Once you’re in the safety cell, "You just wished you had cooperated."

In fact, the only option is cooperation. Recalled a probationer, "You’re put into a holding tank with 20-plus guys. The tension is there; you’re feeling [he laughs] some tension. There’s a lot of people that are not happy, just freshly arrested. Then you go to another room and you line up against a wall. They tell you, lift your nut sac, lift your dick, bend over and spread your cheeks. They look in your mouth, go through your hair—very thorough. The guards are not very nice about it; it’s a demeaning thing. You feel powerless. You feel, my God, what have I come to? This is where I am?"

Consider this woman’s savvy testimony: jail at 18 and prison, off and on, in her 20s and 30s. "The first trip I took to jail, I got arrested for [being] drunk in public. I remember when they put the handcuffs on me I got a fear inside. But because I come from where I come from, I know how to play the role. The role is, you can’t let your fears show. If you let your fears show, then you’re in a lot of trouble. You go in there and act like you have no feelings. You go in there like a steel person. If you show fear, you get walked on. When you walk into jail," she continued, "you step into a whole other dimension, the county jail’s world, and whatever they say, goes. It’s your word against their word. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen deputies beat inmates. They beat you for not turning around and putting your face against the wall. They’ve got this control issue. Picture yourself going into a cave, like a dungeon. There’s only one way in and one way out."

Of her first entry to prison: "Imagine this. You’re on a bus and you’re shackled. You got a CO sitting in front with a shotgun and you got one sitting in back with a shotgun, and they tell you from the start: ‘I don’t give a fuck about you and I won’t hesitate to blow your fucking heads off, so keep your fucking mouths shut, and we won’t have no problems.’ That scared the shit out of me. I wasn’t playing with the little girls no more. It was a whole other world. The CO’s demoralize you. You don’t say nothing. You just watch. That way you don’t get fronted out, yelled at, or thrown on the ground. It’s their tactic—to break you down."

I wanted to know how inmates survive the humiliation and dominion of jail and prison. So I asked them—a dozen men and women who’ve been in (and are now out of) the central jail, county detention, or state prison, whether it was Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa or another state pen. (Probationers, parolees, and ex-prisoners spoke to me with the proviso that I would not reveal their identities or their crimes.) They have faceless voices, nameless stories. It’s no surprise they’re full of gratitude for being out, though most fear breaking parole and going back. All are trying to avoid the neighborhood and the crew that helped spawn their crimes; all are trying to navigate a job market that wants to know where they’ve been. Those with whom I spoke sounded beat, tired of watching their backs, tired of feeling doomed. To a man, to a woman, no one going in the first time was prepared for the shudder of incarceration; everyone coming out talks like an adept, a climber who’s scaled Mount Everest. Few slow learners survive behind bars.

Arrested in San Diego

If you’re male and arrested in San Diego, you’re processed at the central jail, which is run by the county sheriff’s department. (Women are taken to Las Colinas in Santee.) As a suspect, you slump-shoulder your way through hours of the booking procedure, a maze of questioning stations and holding cells. First, your property is confiscated and bagged; a triage nurse asks four questions (been in an accident in the past 24 hours? have any major medical problem? have an infectious disease? feeling suicidal?). Depending on your answers, you may receive medical attention. Next, you’re photographed and the picture is placed with a number and a bar code on your wristband. Once you’re wrist-banded, your bar code is scanned wherever you go inside the jail. The color of the band determines your status: blue for an entry or a regular inmate; brown for trustee; green for high security like guys entrenched in gangs; and yellow for highest security. Informers, molesters, child killers, the "yellow banders" might be hurt or killed by other inmates, so they’re segregated. You’re told again of the charges against you and your bail amount (very few arrestees make bail), and you’re given access to a telephone for free calls.

Next, you’re fingerprinted, strip-searched, and outfitted in prison blues. Dark navy blue pants and shirt, with black letters, sd jail, on the front and back of the shirt. You also get a white undershirt, underwear, and socks. The whites are laundered regularly but they can be ragged, mismatched, and stained. (A woman who’s been in Las Colinas 23 times said for her the worst physical part was wearing jail underwear: "They say, ‘We washed them,’ but you can tell someone else wore them.") You’re then given a medical exam, where nurses winnow out those with drug or psych problems. (Despite constant medical evaluations in jail and prison, estimates are that one in five inmates is mentally ill.) You hear the charges again explained to you. If you say you don’t understand the charges (or a medical staff person decides you don’t), you become a 1368, a reference to a section of the California Penal Code. The code requires that any criminal proceeding against what the court terms a mentally incompetent person will be recessed until that person receives treatment and can understand the charges. (Long-term 1368’s are sent to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino.) You’re next interviewed by deputies so you can be reclassified and put into a secure module or open bay (outfitted with three-tier bunk beds, metal tables, and benches, all bolted to the ground). If the deputies consider you a risk, you’ll be placed in an individual cell with a cellie. Finally, you must be charged within 72 hours. You can be held in jail (downtown or at any of the county detention facilities) while you await trial or while you serve time for a misdemeanor conviction which, by law, cannot exceed one year in jail. You can also be held after you’ve been convicted of a felony and while you are awaiting transfer to a state prison.

It all sounds—from the procedural point of view—efficient and humane and erected with the safety of inmate, deputy, and visitor in mind. But go through the place and your sensibility changes. The central jail on Front Street, opened in 1998, is an Orwellian fortress, a disciplinarian’s high-tech dream. On the outside, it’s ten stories are stacked with fake windows; on the inside, its concrete-block walls are painted with thick coats of white paint. Every floor contains a warren of passageways, stairwells, elevators, separate entrances/exits for visitors and attorneys; there’s even a "last door," through which a "gated out" inmate dashes to the street. Most striking are the sally ports. Here, when visitors or inmates are going from one secure floor or wing to another, a person is locked in for an interminable moment. Ceiling-hung closed-circuit cameras (260 of them) monitor every hallway, drunk tank, safety cell, and medical bay, while computer screens flash pictures of a holding cell, where a prisoner might lie naked on the floor, his polystyrened dinner flung against the wall. Individual cells and housing modules, where inmates are kept, have no bars but, instead, heavy steel doors with clear Plexiglass windows about 12 inches square. The doors are powered by compressed air; they buzz a warning, then fffpphhut shut. Deputies can close and open doors individually or all together on any floor.

One probationer, who was in the San Diego Central Jail for 104 days, described it as a "futuristic hell-hole. [You’re] incarcerated in a large room and the cells are on two tiers on the backside of the room." This large room, also called a housing module or ward, is wedge-shaped—narrow at the front and wide at the back. At the front of the room, the probationer went on, "are metal tables and a large, two-story glass wall. Outside the glass wall is the tower—a black-windowed two-story tower that the deputies are watching you from. They can see you but you can’t see them. Plus every cell has an intercom so they can listen whenever they want to." The downtown jail has four housing modules per floor, with 40 to 50 inmates in each, on five floors. Each floor contains a tower in the center whose panoptic views into the wedge-shaped modules make it easy for a squad of guards to monitor the behavior of the inmates, more than 900 in all.

Throughout these modules are men, sleeping, mopping, standing around; throughout the intake floors are men, being searched, questioned, medically examined; throughout the hallways are deputies standing guard, handcuffing, unhandcuffing inmates: the effect is, the inmates seem cowed, made insignificant by the organizational malevolence of the building.

Depending on your case (especially if you’re charged with a felony), your court date, or your sentence, you’ll probably end up in one of five county detention facilities: Descanso, George F. Bailey, East Mesa, Vista, or South Bay, each with varying levels of security. If you get a cell in one of the larger county jails, typically you’re locked up with another person, anywhere from 15 to 23 hours a day. The cell is nine by six feet. There are bunk beds, with an inch-and-a-half-thick mattress, a combination toilet-sink, a stainless steel mirror, a steel table to write on, and a steel bench. Under your bunk is a shelf, on which you can keep up to six books, pen, paper, envelopes, soap, and food stuff. You come out to the day room for showers, books, meals, checkers, talk, contraband (typically weapons, drugs from the outside, or meds given inside that guys tongue or don’t swallow; many are desperate for tranquilizers), and stores (stuff you buy in jail: junk food, instant coffee, Ramen noodles, Soup in a Cup, and so on, up to $75 a week).

For women in Las Colinas, there’s often four to the cell. A woman who’d served time there said sometimes the newest woman in the cell would bed down on the floor. "There was no room to go to the bathroom," until she rolled up her mattress. With four in a cell, what was the protocol for using the toilet? "It depends on your roommate—if you get respectful roommates or make a pact with each other that hey, if someone has to go, we all go out of the room. But that’s only if the doors are open. If the doors are closed—most of the day they are; we only come out like three hours a day and a couple hours at night—then you have to go with the other persons in there."

According to several inmates, Bailey is the worst local jail. There, four large cellblocks are connected by tunnels and, within the buildings, the men are segregated by race, age of inmates, gangs, or type of crime. Segregation provides little safety, however; the institution is crammed with men on their way to a penitentiary and with men doing county time, say, a bullet, or one-year sentence. Bailey is as dangerous as it is stressful. "I hated Bailey," one guy recalled. "It’s like a thunder dome. There’s fights all the time. They stay up all night, sleep during the day. It’s total chaos." It’s the young who are always fighting. "They want to prove their manhood. It’s kind of like a gladiator school."

Another man also described Bailey as "pure chaos. The potential for violence is a lot stronger [than downtown]. The guards themselves act accordingly. They are some mean bastards." One cuss word, hurled at a deputy, and "those guards are beating you down to the ground. Fists and clubs." One day a long-haired guy, who swore about his food, got severely beaten. This inmate "turned his back on a deputy and the deputy grabbed him by the hair, pulled him back, and socked him in the face; they guy staggered to his knees but he didn’t fall because he didn’t let go of his hair. Then, another couple of deputies—they all wear black gloves in there; it’s just ominous—they come rushing out and give this guy a couple of punches. Then they all drag him into the sally port where no one can see what happens—and continue."

If you’re sentenced to prison, you may be taken to Donovan for processing. Donovan, which is across the arroyo from Bailey, at the eastern end of Otay Mesa, is the only state prison in the county. State prisons are classified by security level: Level I has "open dormitories without a secure perimeter"; Level II, "open dormitories with secure perimeter fences and armed coverage"; Level III, "individual cells, fence perimeters and armed coverage"; and Level IV, "cells, fenced or walled perimeters, electronic security" with armed staff inside and outside the pen. Some prisons have reception centers and security housing units. Donovan is a Level I and Level III prison with a reception center. According to the California Department of Corrections website, Donovan’s capacity is 2200. Today it contains 4386 inmates and a staff of 1297. So, if you’re doing state time, it’s a good chance you won’t stay at Donovan. You’ll be transferred to one of California’s 32 other minimum to maximum state prisons, its 37 minimum custody camps (where inmates are trained to fight fires), or its 12 community correctional facilities. Wherever you go, know that state lock-ups are severely overcrowded, even though the state, because of Prop 36, is releasing some non-violent drug offenders into treatment programs. The population in U.S. prisons during the two "punishing decades" of the 1980s and 1990s grew fourfold; in California the increase was nearly sevenfold, from 23,264 in 1980 to 159,177 in 2000. In the last 20 years, the number of parolees who live in California has increased tenfold.

Skin Deep

The key to surviving long-term is race allegiance. Black, Mexican, White. BMW, it’s called. Colors on a palette: black, brown, and white. From a helicopter view of a prison yard, you’d see the three races congregating and distinct gaps between them. A few splinter groups exist. You might "run with God" (Christian or Muslim or Nation of Islam); you might join the homosexuals (a group that’s very "out" inside). And then there’s the group of one, a house unto yourself. You’re an old guy, a career criminal, or a lifer, who marks his independence and fends for himself. Or you’re Charles Manson, Squeaky Fromme; a pedophile priest, a psych case. Then you’re separated from everyone.

Blacks hang with blacks; their groups are the Crips and the Bloods. Whites hang with whites; their members divide into the skinheads, or Aryan Brotherhood (a.k.a., the peckerwoods, described by one guy as, "tattooed-down and don’t take no shit"), and run-of-the-mill whitey. In general, Mexicans have two gangs: the Sureños (or southerners) from southern California and the Norteños from northern California. The Asians hang with the Mexicans. One ex-convict, whose father was Hispanic and mother was white, said when he got to prison, "I had to choose. Either that or you’re left in the cold."

"The first thing you learn," remembered one probationer, "is that this [racial] separation is condoned and encouraged by the deputies because they know what happens if they try and enforce rules otherwise." In other words, the deputies who run the jails and the CO’s who run the prisons want this system as much as the inmates do. Deputies and CO’s assign cells based on race. This arrangement allows the prisoners to police themselves. Why? Look at it from the guards’ point of view. When they have, say, a half-dozen mobs of angry men, each with 500 or 600 members, massing at different times every day in a yard, they’d just as soon delegate authority. Otherwise, said a parolee, "Anybody can fall to anybody. If some guy’s bigger than you, he’s going to take what you got. That’s all there is to it. Protection in numbers is the key."

Since races are pitted against each other and there’s always strife—latent or manifest—among the inmates, the guards also can dodge most of the prisoners’ rage. "The guards keep you at each other’s throats," recalled a man who’s done two "jolts" in two different state prisons, "so they don’t have to worry about you going after them." Another ex-convict called racial segregation in the pen, a strategy of "divide and conquer. If the races all got together, the guards would have much less control over the inmates."

Deputies and CO’s require that each group elect a representative. His name is the shot caller. If there’s trouble between races or between men within a race, the guards lock everyone down and make the shot callers discuss what’s happening, say, a fight over extra food or somebody’s insulted So-and-So’s mother. That’s when the race reps will hear the deputies read them the riot act: solve the problem or the pen stays shut down. One parolee said the only time the races mix is to close a deal: "get ink for tattoos, get drugs or alcohol or some favor returned." But, he cautioned, before any trade happens, the race reps have to be consulted and the deal has to be sanctioned. One source of certain violence is when men deal outside the control of their shot callers.

Prisoners join cars. A car can be a small or a large group of same-race guys. The phrase in prison is, "Who’s holding the keys to the car?" Which means, who’s got the power, who’s driving that car. Usually, it’s the one who’s been in the longest. They lay down the rules for the inmates in that car or race group. In Centinela, a prison housing 4400 men in Imperial County, the black rep was a Muslim, doing 15 years. "He had," said a member of his car, "come up through the ranks. He had earned the right," to hold the keys. "He was able to move stuff, he knew how to skirt around things, and he had juice cards [favors handed out by guards] with different CO’s."

Another advantage of joining the race car is personal safety. A person from another race is not going to demean or belittle you because you belong to a particular car. Each car has to respect every other car or they go to war with each other. The camaraderie within the cars is or appears to be real. "When you’re with your car," a parolee recalled, "you become close to these guys and you say, ‘We’re going to be friends for life.’ I personally had some close relationships in jail but I haven’t been in touch with anyone since I got out. The friendship worked while I was there but—some guys were hardcore drug addicts who I didn’t want to associate with during my probation. When you’re inside, the bond seems real. It’s kind of like high school."

One new white guy in Bailey, on his way to prison, got a stiff lecture from the key holder and his subordinates when he joined the car. He was told, "‘You don’t talk with the niggers. You don’t eat with them, you don’t take anything from them, you don’t give them anything. You do not associate with them. This is the way it is.’"

Gangs, of course, exist in prison. They maintain themselves in myriad ways, dealing drugs and offering protection. They identify members via tattoos. One parolee noted that if you want the protection of a car—to be initiated, as it were—you have to submit to a group tattoo that shows your allegiance. A corrections staffer told me that in the old days, prisoners seldom challenged the guards. But that’s changing, he said, with so many young kids locked up. The Aryan Brotherhood in one California pen insisted that young guys who wanted to join assault a CO. After the kid hit the CO in the face, he was thrown in the hole for several months. But he was in the club.

The Mexican gang structure, in and out of prison and jail, is well-established. "The outside comes into the inside," said a parolee. "The Mexicans will actually send someone in [to jail] to carry out a mission or message from the gang outside against someone inside. A Mexican will get arrested for, say, drunk in public or possession of pot, preferably the least charge. Then he’ll try to get into the right tank. It’s amazing."

Medium hostility occurs between the browns and the whites; sometimes they can actually talk, maybe take a nearby shower, closer than normal, or get buddy-buddy in trades. Maximum hostility exists between the blacks and the browns and the blacks and the whites. Of course, not everyone wants it this way. But most everyone conforms.

In Corcoran

Maximum race hostility is the watchword at Corcoran State Prison. Built in 1988, the penitentiary is south of Fresno in the central valley, with capacity set at 2916 men, and today housing 4867. Seventy-five percent of those in Corcoran’s maximum security cellblock are lifers. In a separate facility on site, Corcoran domiciles Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, whom their fellow lifers never see.

A Sureño who was in Corcoran for nearly three years told me that "the whites and the [Mexican] southerners run together. We smoked with each other, played basketball and cards together. But with the blacks, if there was a problem, the two [black and white] shot callers would communicate. If nothing got resolved, we’d have to back them up. For instance, if you’d bought some dope [from outside your race]—that’s usually the main cause of a problem, a deal gone bad. That’s why they say, if you want something, stick within your race. Because then—‘Okay, my money didn’t get here; I’ll take care of you next month.’ But if you do that with another race—‘Okay, look man, you’re supposed to have my money now; either bring my money outside or strap up.’" As in, get your shank and get ready to rumble.

The southerners with whom he ran didn’t "require" him to lift weights. But it was "suggestively asked." They wanted to see "participation": jogging, basketball, "anything to keep your wind up." If a fight happens with the blacks, the southerners want to know who they can count on. Doing a half-hour of push-ups every day, in full view of the shot caller, usually persuades him of your loyalty.

The Corcoran inmate said fights happen "so fast. Like two guys could be having words, and the next thing you know, you look over and see a white and a black fighting, and the next thing you know, it’s every white on every black. Bang, bang, bang—feet, elbows, hands, it doesn’t matter; everyone’s swinging." The CO in the cage above the prisoners is "instantly shooting rubber bullets. Pow! Pow! Then they sound the alarm and everyone gets down." And yet, he said, despite the quickness of the response, he would get a "good minute-and-a-half" of punches in.

After every fight and after inmates emerge from lock down, the group leaders in Corcoran look for those who didn’t participate in the fight. "Someone might come to your cell and say, ‘Hey, man, where were you?’ ‘Oh, I went to the bathroom.’ [With that response], you’ll probably get touched up—a little wake-up call when you’re on the yard."

Twice a day, most Corcoran inmates go to the yard in shifts to play basketball, football, volleyball, even tennis. Time outside the cell is preferable in Corcoran because when the CO’s keep the cons cooped up too long, they get incensed and, once all the doors are unlocked, the men come out, "their attitudes flaring." It’s a prison paradox. In their cells, prisoners aren’t fighting or making deals, but they’re hoarding anxiety and resentment. On the yard, in the group, inmates get whatever it is that’s bothering them off their chests. Where’s my dope? Here it is, man. Good thing because I was going nuts in my house, and it woulda been your sorry ass had I gone off.

Getting Checked

A check, according to one probationer, is a "short and brutal assault. Checks go from a chin-check, which is a single punch to the face to make you understand what your problem is, to a knockout-check. They set it up so it happens behind a little phalanx of guys." In the housing modules of the downtown jail, he continued, there are "two cement pylons on either side of the ward. Behind those pylons there are cell doors, which make it so the deputies can’t see directly into the cell. And these two cells," he claimed, "are specifically made for [inmate] fighting and assaulting." (A deputy at the central jail said he was not aware that prisoners had designated cells in which they fight.)

When eating with your car, you don’t get up when you’re finished; you wait until everyone is done. If you violate this or any other of the car’s rules, "Your own people," the probationer remembered, "will take you out of view from the tower, like into the corners," where "they all sock you up a bit. That never happened to me. Because I was conscientious. I really didn’t need a lot of explanation."

Checks happen within the car all the time. Why? Irony of the malcontents. Almost every prisoner is a naysayer, a rebel, a lone gun, who has broken whatever law he or she has found necessary to break. Driving drunk, abusing drugs, stealing stereos. You name it. "None of us," a white probationer said, "fits into society’s rules. But, inside, you find a set of rules—do’s and don’t do’s—and either you’re going to embrace your car and do as they say" or you’ll get checked. The person who says, "I think racial prejudice is wrong" will get checked because "that’s a pretty stupid thing to say in jail or prison. Just making that statement and another white person hears you—there you go, there’s a check. You’re going to be taken into the corner and get tenderized."

In prison, "What will get you fucked up"—demanding a check—"is stealing," a parolee from Centinela recalled. "More than anything else, stealing and disrespect. You disrespect somebody, you better be able to defend yourself. If it’s one on one, they’ll let you go at it. A black against a white or whatever. Usually your car will punish you also." Another ex-convvict said about stealing, "Even though you might have been a thief on the street, you wouldn’t dare think of stealing from your peers in prison. You don’t tell on anybody, either."


Prisoners work—to make money, to pay (tiny amounts of) restitution, to stay out of trouble, to serve the prison structure or the other inmates. There’s spotty job training, some decent jobs, a ton of busywork, and much opportunity (plus a captive market) for self-employment.

A woman who did time at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California, said, "When you go in, they have your release date. If you work, you get out 6 months before this date. If you want that good time, you’ve got to work. In [women’s] prison they have all kinds of jobs—electrical, plumbing, secretarial." Without skills, "they put you in the kitchen. Or on trash pick-up. The best job is secretarial. The worst job is kitchen. Nasty, filthy. I worked in a kitchen; I was the lead cook; and I made nine cents an hour. I worked my ass off. How was the food? It was slop but what else were you going to eat? I went to work at three o’clock in the morning and got off at ten-thirty. I did breakfast. I’d cook potatoes. We’re talking huge quantities of potatoes. You had to put them all in the oven. The worst job that I had was scrambled eggs. You do it by buckets. And you’ve got this grill that’s pretty big. You start out with a little bit and you keep pouring on and pretty soon you got a big thing of eggs. You got to know how to do it just right because if you overcook them and put them in the walk-in heater, then they’re going to turn green. They’re cooked too much. If they’re undercooked, they stay slimy. It’s a skill. Cooking for 1500 people. I hated work. It was filthy. I stunk all the time.

"On your way to pick your breakfast up, you picked your lunch up, too. They’d give you this little box. With cellophane on it. There’s a sandwich in there, an apple, chips, and this little thing of Kool-Aid. No juice, no milk. Let me tell you about the Kool-Aid—we used the Kool-Aid to scrub the pans." A woman who did time at Central California Women’s Facility, called by the nearby town, Chowchilla, got paid three cents an hour to work in the kitchen: "It wasn’t for the money," she said, with a chuckle, "it was to get out of my room."

Lots of time in a penitentiary is devoted to busywork. Here’s a clipboard and a list of names; keep track of who gets what, like who gets two half-pints rather than one of milk at dinner. Pick up the tests in math class for the teacher. Clean the metal tables and benches in the ward. Paint this stairwell. Scrub down this holding tank and get all the feces out of the cracks in the cement. Assistants, helpers, gofers. One of the best and most consuming duties is the daily choice of TV programs. The CO’s rotate this decision every day by race. Here’s the TV Guide. Today the white guys must meet and find which programs everyone’s going to watch tonight. It’s nontrivial. So nontrivial that one ex-prisoner recalled a riot that came down "between the blacks and the whites over a TV program. Some guy got thrown through a glass window and it almost severed his arm."

At a minimum security lock-up, one parolee was a baker, making pies, cakes, and other desserts for 400 to 500 people daily. But that’s a rare, "good" job. Fickly-funded labor includes the old prison standby, making license plates, as well as apprenticeship programs in auto-body shop and engine repair; laundry services; upholstery repair; janitorial skills; cabinet-making; and one program in which convicts fixed broken bicycles and gave them to kids. At Chowchilla, women had contracts to produce American flags, repair trucks for the U.S. Navy, and sew boxer shorts for male prisoners. Another program was, believe it or not, landscaping. The inmates at Folsom State Prison used to feed table scraps to birds in the yards. In fact, wherever the birds landed and the inmates concentrated the feeding, the grass was green. One of the guards had an idea. The men, given enough scraps and with their patient feeding, could landscape the entire grounds. Call it Beautify Folsom. But then, before it could be approved and funded, that year’s budget hammer fell.

And then there’s the illegal professions inside. Credit card scams and phone solicitation fraud. One ex-convict who was in maximum security recollected that he had a good business "piercing people. My cell was called the ‘House of Pain.’ Guys would want their nose, their eyebrows, their nipples, anything below the waist—[for] which I charged extra, plus I had gloves." In prison the CO’s don’t care that guys have facial and body hardware attached. "I’ve had a tongue ring for 9 years. Then I got a hold of a barbell. Cost $5 on the outside, $20 in prison." Any skill gets used during lock-up, even the surgically scary self-tongue-piercing.

A Nest of Conundrums

Whatever job or task you do, the work helps pass the time, it structures your day, and it occupies your mind. Work keeps you away from congregating inmates—some of whom have nothing better to do than fuck with your head, sell you drugs, bullshit or bore you all day, provoke you to hit someone so you’ll have more time tacked on to your sentence. But, inevitably, an accusation is launched, a disagreement festers, a punch flies and lands. Once the fighting becomes a group endeavor, everyone’s locked down. And lock down is intolerable: cell-time means the absence of socializing. Locked down, you miss random conversation, book exchanges, card games, camaraderie. If you’re cooped-up too long, things go wrong with your head. You think too much. You go back and forth, deceiving yourself with lies and hope.

One parolee said, "In there—I’ll be honest with you—I used to think, because I was a car thief, man, ‘I’m going to go out and hit five cars real quick, bam! sell them, come up with some cash, and chill out.’ It’s that greed we don’t understand. You tell stories about committing crimes. How good I was at doing this or that. And that’s all a bunch of crap. You have to sound cool as you hear yourself talk. But at the same time you’re thinking, ‘Man, I remember walking down the beach with my kids.’ I’m thinking about all the stuff I liked to do. Go to the golf range. I love to swim. But you look around, and all you see is fences and gates."

In the end, you learn to think it’s better not to think. You wear the veil: pledging allegiance to the group and keeping a foot outside it; not dwelling on your time served and yet counting the days till freedom; hating those with authority over you and never showing that hate but, instead, disguising it as toughness, false bravura, emotionlessness. Not even lifers get used to surviving the penitentiary. The people who fit best in prison are those who know how to be seen and heard as people they are not.

"And Time Keeps Dragging On"

You think you commandeer time by doing it, as in doing time. But being locked up is actually a case of time being done to you. It’s your sentence—How long you in for, man?—the first thing every con asks every fish, or first-timer. This court sentences you to 90 days in Bailey. Or five years in Soledad. Five years’ time. So what do you do?

You find the long way to do the essentials. One guy said he spent a half-hour brushing his teeth: getting out his brush and toothpaste, running the water, oozing the paste out onto the bristles, brushing for a good ten minutes, meticulously cleaning the brush, arranging it just so on his shelf. You watch gobs of TV; soap opera addictions are common. You play checkers or chess. You take a class: one guy recalled that in algebra he and his buddies played cards [a favorite prison pastime] for two hours, and the teacher approved—"poker’s mathematical." You vegetate on the sameness. One man who’d been in all five San Diego county detention facilities told me that jail "is so stagnant. That’s at it’s best. At it’s best, it’s stagnant and it’s stupid and it’s demeaning. Your mind is always on the other side of the fence. The same old shit every day. The same old food every day. The same people talking the same blah-blah-blah every day."

You read the pawed-through paperbacks—thrillers, horror, true crime, mysteries. "I’ve always been a reader," said a probationer. "I love to read. And that was the only blessing I had in Bailey was books. I felt sorry for guys who couldn’t read. I’d be like, ‘Good God, how do they exist day to day? They do it by fully immersing themselves in that lifestyle, they embrace it. But for me I had that option. I read. That’s what got me through."

You make prison wine: it’s called pruno.

Pruno wizardry begins when an inmate uses a brown paper bag to support a clear plastic bag. "Into that you pour water and juices that come in little milk cartons, then whole wheat bread from sandwiches that you make into little dough balls, then fruit cocktail, sugar-based powered punch mix, and you let it sit. It turns, over the course of 3 or 4 days, into a kind of wine with 10 or 12 percent alcohol. It has a slightly carbonated taste and gives a rough kind of high. I was in for 104 days, and every third or fourth week a deputy would come through and kick every bag that had stores [commissary stuff] in it. Ironically, inmates sharing a cell bust themselves up [give themselves away]. They drink this stuff—two of them get drunk—get into an argument and fight, and then the deputies have a reason to go around and kick the bags. The deputies are amused to say the least."

Recalled one parolee, "Usually when a person gets drunk, he gets out of control. So they’re really death on pruno. There’s a lot of pot on the yard. If you smoke some pot, the only thing you’re going to do is go to your cell, kick back, and watch TV. Prison wine makes the average person nuts. It’s some potent shit."

And, while the clock ticks, you sit at the feet of the true masters—your colleagues—who instruct you on how to launder money, how to break into houses, how to hot wire a Mercedes-Benz, and more. It’s perhaps the richest conundrum of all about being locked up: penitentiaries are schools for crime. Most guys, except for the corrigible few, said incarceration seldom deters crime. No one on the inside (prisoner or guard) thinks that any inmate’s behaviors have been modified while doing time so that when he comes out, he’ll never again (I promise, Your Honor) car-jack, sell heroin, beat up his wife, or stab his father-in-law because the old bastard made some remark about his goatee. No, the joke’s on anyone who thinks being locked-up is a form of rehabilitation. If nothing else, prison induces men and women to plot revenge and to stew about a crime past or future. The majority of those incarcerated in California come out, heading back in. According to a recent study by the Little Hoover Commission, 67 percent of California state-prison admissions are parolees who’ve violated the condition of their release. That’s almost twice the national average.

In the Hole

Time alone is prison’s purest punishment. A parolee from Centinela told me his isolation began with a fight he had with a CO. "There was a lot of tension about taking showers. One CO would let you do one thing, and another CO wouldn’t let you do another thing. One morning, we got into it about taking showers. He was on the podium, and he and I were yelling at each other. It got to the point where he came charging off the podium and I jumped down off my bunk, and we met in between the bunk beds. I let him get close enough to knock his ass down. When they finally got me, they searched me, [looked] at my body to see what kind of bruises I had, then they took me to the SHU, the security housing unit." The hole.

At the security housing unit, the man put up a fight with a CO who was forcing him to submit to another search. "‘Fuck,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m in the hole anyway,’ so I ran him back into the wall." The eight-by-six cell was very cold, kept that way to cut down on diseases like colds, he remembered. Two CO’s observing him "told me to strip out of my jumpsuit, and I said, ‘What for?’and they said, ‘Because we think you’re suicidal. I said, ‘I’m not suicidal.’ I told them to go fuck themselves. So about five minutes later there was 8 or 10 of them with six-foot shields. I said [to myself], ‘Pump your brakes.’ So I took off the jumpsuit and they gave me a paper jumpsuit and two paper sheets. For four days." The sheets didn’t keep him warm.

How did he survive? "After a couple of days, it’s all a mental exercise," he said. "You just get mean enough that you talk yourself into making your way through it." It became eight months! What did you do? "I did a lot of reading and exercising. I was reading three or four books every two days." You just accept it? "It’s the only thing you can do."


Paperwork is the prison euphemism for knowing a person’s past. When you’re brought to a penitentiary, the secretarial staff, typically composed of trustees, reads the prisoner’s central file or history—everything you’ve ever been arrested for since age 18. They discover whether you’re an ordinary criminal or an abuser, a child molester, a baby killer, a rapist. It’s called "running someone’s tags." (In state and federal pens, the whereabouts of convicted rapists are keenly followed by inmates; it’s often the case that the woman who’s been raped is a daughter, niece, girlfriend, or mother of an inmate somewhere.)

Perhaps the worst prior offense you could have: ratting out another prisoner. The word goes out immediately, and informers are dealt with severely. The old rule of thumb, recalled one parolee, is, "If the guards know, you know. Which means, in every aspect of prison operations, there’s an inmate involved. They see the paperwork. They know the codes. When someone comes through, they automatically know this person is a snitch."

What do informers inform on? Gang activity, drug sales, tattooing. "It’s against the law to be tattooed in there. Say a guy in prison was running a tattoo parlor. They want to find out who this tattoo artist is—you can make a tattoo gun out of any radio. The prisoners move the gun and the ink around." If the informer can find the evidence, for the CO, "it’s a little star on his jacket."

A parolee from Eagle Mountain, a community correctional facility in Desert Center, California, recalled that once the whites "had a severe snitch come through. He came from another yard where he ‘PC-ed’ up. PC means protective custody." The white man had been in the hole and wanted out. So, he agreed to be transferred to another state pen and snitch on inmates there. In his case, as soon as he was processed, the inmates "were beating the shit out of him." At Eagle Mountain, the CO’s, as a way of finding who among the inmates had tenderized the white guy, would inspect everyone’s hands. Finding evidence of abrasions or bruises, they’d take the man to the hole. "After the first month," of these hand inspections, the cons "got smart," he said. "They started putting locks in socks—beat the shit of a person with that."

Drugs on the Inside

"If you go into Donovan right now," a former inmate there told me, "and you take 200 cells—you’re counting 400 people—I bet you that at least 275 of them are high, as we speak, right now. It goes on every place." Drugs are rampant. The main commodity and currency. Bought with cash, used for favors. Drugs come in, in the inmates’ bodies—swallowed or "keistered." Drugs are passed by mouth during conjugal visits, dropped from airplanes onto prison yards, or catapulted over fences.

Said a female recidivist, "The more the jails try to keep the drugs out, the smarter these inmates get. When the judge sentenced me to my first term in prison for heroin, I said, ‘You think you just did me justice. There’s more drugs in the penitentiary than there is on the street.’ I was bringing dope in jail. In 1987, they got me for contributing [drugs] to an institution, under the influence, possession, sales—because I was bringing in heroin to the prison. At the time, I had no teeth. I would get the balloons and put them up in my mouth here, and they’d tell me to open my mouth and lift my tongue, but they didn’t realize I had no teeth, and I was sticking the stuff up here [in her gums]. And then, just in case that didn’t work, I would drink a lot of water before my visit and swallow three or four balloons. Inside, I’d drink shampoo. That would make me throw up. That’s why I drank so much water. They just stayed right here [on top of her stomach]. With that heroin, I had power. You would come to me and ask me for stuff. It’s a power thing for somebody who didn’t have nothing inside. This made me somebody. Gave me self-esteem and self-worth I didn’t have."

The most popular drugs are the downers, the ones that cinch sleep or hasten time. A few prisoners like to be hyped up on crystal meth, which is, one guy recalled, the "last thing you want to be. They make a pseudo-speed in there. You’re allowed to buy over-the-counter medications through the commissary. Some hardcore Mexican guys ordered up cold pills with pseudo-ephedrine in them. They crush up these tabs and mix them with the zest from orange peels. It makes a caky shit that they get a buzz off of. They were just frenetic and dangerous."

A detainee from Bailey said drugs were always getting in. The guards "never [search] the body cavity. You spread your cheeks but they’re not probing up there. People who know they’re going to jail are going to load up. If you’re not going to prison, chances are you’ll go to one of the two work camps, Descanso or East Mesa. East Mesa is right across the street from Bailey. You’re going to work, wear tans, and fulfill some sentence. In those places you get contact visits—your wife or girlfriend. It’s in a picnic-like area. Stuff comes in."

Guards made $8.50 an hour at Eagle Mountain. "It was pretty easy to turn them," a prisoner there recalled, "because we’re having people mail drugs directly to our houses," or cells. The man didn’t "buy off the guards," but rather, when they delivered the drugs, he gave "them a percentage. A lot of them were hooked [on drugs] anyway. We weren’t selling to them; we’d just break them off some crystal."

Inmates talk about an "attitude adjustment" or a "head change," a repeat offender said. "You use marijuana or drink pruno to deaden the pain. You get tired of feeling the same way every day. You say, ‘Oh, fuck, man, I need a head change.’" "It’s something to do," another ex-prisoner noted. "Get high, pass the time."

Sexual Intimacy, Sexual Assault

"Sex is not a given," said a former woman inmate. "It’s not a way of surviving. Women have that nurturing, that loving compassion anyways. A lot of women who are not gay come in and they do get in to that. They do get [from other females] the loving and the understanding that’s never been felt before. That’s just so attractive. It’s really hard to distinguish whether it’s love or—what am I feeling? Is this love or is it something I’ve never felt before? What is this? Right away we want to think, oh, it’s a lustful feeling." Another woman was shocked when she first entered Chowchilla: "If I had not known that it was a women’s prison, I would have thought those were males there. I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ They were all against the fence and they all looked like men. They had mustaches, shaved heads, regular men’s clothes—some of them lived together or they’d sneak into a cell together. It happens all the time. They’ll sleep together if they can get away with it. Somebody will watch out for them: ‘Hey, honey, can you eye for me?’"

Inside every male prison, there’s a gay population. A probationer reported that the sexual contact he saw was "voluntary. There were people, emotionally and mentally unstable, who thought that that was exciting." A parolee remembered, "most yards are run by homosexuals. Most homosexuals get jobs working for the yard captain or lieutenant. They do a lot of typing; they’re highly educated people. They wear the make-up—just like on the outside." Another parolee talked about the "girls," with names like Sherry or Birdie. "A couple of them even had titties." They like to flirt, he said. On the other hand, they were seldom doormats. In fact, he’d "seen homosexuals knock people out. There was this one that we called Monique. Man, she was 9 and 0—her boxing record. She was a professional boxer before she went gay." Went gay? "Yeah, some guys, who’re doing life, they make the turn."

Minimum security yards or open dorm facilities may result in gay sex getting out of hand. If a gay car gets too outrageous, then the CO’s will transfer some members to another penitentiary. Their records will go with them, and some may wind up in isolation or in level III yards. On occasion, you see men having consensual sex—or else, said one guy, "they’re buying it."

What about sexual assault? "People hear stories that you’re going to prison," recalled a probationer, "and you’ll be shacked up with Bubba," who’s going to violate you. Prison is the "farthest thing from that." This man was never afraid of being assaulted sexually. Nor were others I spoke with. However, statistics report that prison rape happens to one in five inmates. Perhaps there’s so much shame associated with being raped that men who report it can’t talk about it. Among the many advice manuals about surviving prison is Jim Hogshire’s You Are Going to Prison, which is written in the hard-boiled style of Dashiell Hammett. Hogshire reports that if you’re raped or "turned out," you should tell the guards to put you in P.C. or transfer you to another cellblock or prison. Above all, when they ask, Who did it? say you don’t know; it was dark and you couldn’t see his face. In terms of physical consequences, it’s less damaging to be raped than it is to identify the rapist: Thou Shalt Not Snitch.

Never Going Back

A probationer, who’s been in county jails on four occasions, told me that at Bailey, East Mesa, Descanso, and downtown, he had little or no access to treatment programs. But at South Bay a counselor named Bob Armstrong "really cared" about him. "That was the damnedest thing. He would speak to you as an individual, try to inspire you. He’d show you movies and say, ‘This is where everybody ends up. Are you happy here? Is this what you really want?’ When I was in South Bay, I never wanted to be honest with this guy because I didn’t think that I wanted any of what he was saying. I heard it, though. I listened and I knew what he was saying was true. I really didn’t want to spend my life behind bars. But at the same time I couldn’t wait to get me a big shard of crystal and shoot it. As long as you hold any reservations" about getting clean, what Armstrong was offering "was not going to make any difference.

"When I got out this last time, I had no other plan in mind than getting some crystal and shooting it. I went out to my old neighborhood, which was my little crime zone—I used to steal and rob and break into houses and cars to support my habit, but then all that actually became part of my high. Even if I didn’t need the money or the goods and I had enough dope, I was still going to rob and steal because that’s what I did to have fun."

Out of jail, this man looked for his cronies but most of them had been convicted of selling to undercover agents. All that was left were the younger guys. He couldn’t get a syringe, which was "how I liked to do my methamphetamine, so I ended up smoking it and snorting it with these kids. I went near the riverbed where I used to live. And I sat in the middle of this damned, fucking dirty field, and for the first time in my life, I was high on dope and miserable. Just so tired of it all. I knew, man, I knew that it was wrong, that there was so much more to me than what I’d become. I had a tremendous sadness. I thought about my daughter—I have a daughter who is six now—and I thought of how I didn’t even go and see her. I got out of doing a year and I had no intention but running and doing some dope right away. All of these things sat in my head. I sat in the field and, the younger guys said, ‘What the fuck’s the matter with you?’ and I said, ‘Look, man, I gotta do something.’ I saw a guy that I’d been locked up with, that was homeless in the riverbed, too, and I was telling him, what I’m telling you, ‘Man, I gotta do something. I can’t go on like this.’ ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘there’s a place that will take you in right now.’ ‘What do you mean, take me in?’ And he goes, ‘There’s a recovery place where you can go and they’ll get probation off your ass.’ By now, I was absconding. You got 72 hours to report [to your probation officer] and I was already on day five. Here I was already doing dope and I wasn’t happy anymore doing it. I was miserable. I was out of options. I said, ‘Where will they take me?’ and this guy said, ‘Downtown Salvation Army, ARC [Adult Rehabilitation Center].’ I turned away from this dude right away and he said, ‘Where you going?’ and I said, ‘I’m on my way, fool, what do you think?’"

How much had his time in jail to do with his hitting bottom in the field? "It was a definite factor. Actually, 75 percent of my wanting to recover was due to that fact. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the more this happens, the more you become assimilated to it, the more this becomes your life, the more you’re going to be in prison—and then you’re done. With each time, it gets harder to come out here and relate."

Another man, a heroin addict, in and out of prison and jail for several decades on various drug and theft charges, revealed to me that "prison never made my life any better." A small percentage of inmates can quit drugs or crime on their own, he said. But all prison did was punish him. Only when he got into treatment (via the San Diego Drug Court and, also, the Salvation Army)—thinking the whole time he would never make it, peeing in a cup four times a week for his probation officer, unpacking boxes of used clothing, driving guys to A.A. meetings, going to church on Sundays—he surprised himself and . . . so far, so good. Ten months clean and sober, chances are he’ll make it. So, for now, we might not add another number to the list of 162,210 men and women who are today incarcerated and being punished in California.