Bits and Pieces Discovering the World Narratives

The Meaning of Life in Prison, Part I

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What is a sensible prison sentence when prisoners who have committed a crime, even a violent crime, are no longer a threat to society?

As I entered through the gates of Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, the irony of the word “correctional” didn’t go past me. I felt a sense of loss, a vacuum of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, a sort of erasing of everything that feels soulful, alive. Replaced by metal fences, circular barbed wire, concrete walls, and barren landscapes, the only thing that seemed to remind me of my humanity were the surrounding mountains and the chirping and chitter of birds that found shelter in the few cacti scattered around the perimeter and entrance. The sky was blue, the sun a little too warm, but still inviting. It’s October, the time of the season when Santa Ana winds give way to hot dry weather, often the hottest time of the year. As I enter through several gates, I am reminded that I am walking into a cage.

In a chapel, twenty-two men in baggy blue denim pants and light blue scrub-like shirts provided by the prison start to trickle in, sitting in a circle as they await for the start of the workshop. They seem to be in good spirits, shaking each other’s hands, some introducing themselves for the first time. They are handed an ice-breaker activity, which they immediately seem to engage in, enthusiastically, with each other. The chapel is sterile – white brick walls, a podium, a few bookcases with religious and spiritual literature and stackable chairs organized in a circle – with an unpleasant smell that reminds me of a combination of latex paint, locker room sweat, and hospital rooms.

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There are currently three facilities designated as Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) and I was in one of them. SNY inmates are those inmates that are remanded to the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR), but due to safety concerns, they are separated from General Population inmates to serve their term of incarceration. SNY inmates have the opportunity to work and attend education programs that include Adult Basic Education, college courses, GED programs, Career Technical Education (carpentry, welding, electronics, building maintenance), Inmate Work Labor and an ample offering of programs that afford the inmates opportunities for self-improvement such as the Alternative to Violence conflict resolution workshop, Project PAINT: The Prison ArtsINitiative, Playwrights Project, and the Pooch Program in which inmates train puppies to become service dogs.

There are lots of opportunities for the men to learn and grow. The men, in fact, sometimes find themselves forgetting the limits to their freedom, even if just for a short period of time. However, one is quickly reminded of this fallacy when you see the guards, rigid and distant in a militant-like stance, in the yards they patrol, in the towers from which they watch over everyone, or when they come in to round up inmates for cell count. It is to be reminded that this is a place in which one is not entitled to their time, space, or body. “A cage that allows someone to walk around inside of it is still a cage.”

Many volunteers come and go, but once the volunteers leave, the men are left to survive in a brutal, corrupt, and sometimes animalistic environment. Their participation in these programs is sometimes an escape from the violence and hopelessness that they often feel in prison. It’s the little bit of hope that feeds their determination to survive.

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I spent three days in this cage with men who are locked up and forgotten; left to rot under the fist of repression, oppression, cruelty, and dehumanization. Many of the men are serving life sentences, some without the possibility of parole, for murder, drug related charges, robbery, etc. Many are serving disproportionate sentences because of mandatory sentencing laws. These inflexible, “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offenses. And for a number of them, the sentences they are serving are for crimes they committed when they were teenagers.

Immigrants in Our Own Land
We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken
and we are given overalls like mechanics wear.
We are given shots and doctors ask questions.
Then we gather in another room
where counselors orient us to the new land
we will now live in. We take tests.
Some of us were craftsmen in the old world,
good with our hands and proud of our work.
Others were good with their heads.
They used common sense like scholars
use glasses and books to reach the world.
But most of us didn’t finish high school.
.
The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.
.
We came here to get away from false promises,
from dictators in our neighborhoods,
who wore blue suits and broke our doors down
when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,
swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.
But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated.
The doctors don’t care, our bodies decay,
our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.
Our lives don’t get better, we go down quick.
.
My cell is crisscrossed with laundry lines,
my T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks and pants are drying.
Just like it used to be in my neighborhood:
from all the tenements laundry hung window to window.
Across the way Joey is sticking his hands
through the bars to hand Felipé a cigarette,
men are hollering back and forth cell to cell,
saying their sinks don’t work,
or somebody downstairs hollers angrily
about a toilet overflowing,
or that the heaters don’t work.
.
I ask Coyote next door to shoot me over
a little more soap to finish my laundry.
I look down and see new immigrants coming in,
mattresses rolled up and on their shoulders,
new haircuts and brogan boots,
looking around, each with a dream in their heart,
thinking they’ll get a chance to change their lives.
.
But in the end, some will just sit around
talking about how good the old world was.
Some of the younger ones will become gangsters.
Some will die and others will go on living
without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.
Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,
but so very few make it out of here as human
as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now
as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,
as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,
so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.
.
“Immigrants in Our Own Land” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, from Immigrants in Our Own Land

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