While it was never a conscious decision to try and visit all of the state prisons in California, since I started doing this work, oh, so many years ago, I’ve been to most of them, including the 2 that recently closed. In fact, of the current 33 prisons, there were only a half-dozen I’d missed so far, either being there for parole hearings or for programs and workshops, or all of the above.
This weekend afforded me the chance to scratch yet another facility off my ‘bucket list,” when Dave and I headed to Tehachapi to give our latest workshop, Unraveling Parole Hearings, to the men at CCI. If you’ve never had a call from CCI you wouldn’t know, the automated GTL voice informs you, you have a call from “TEA-ha-choppy.” Well—go right ahead.
In fact, some of the men at CCI, (in Tea-ha-choppy) have been trying for roughly 2 years to get us there. Thanks to persistence and our super-booker-travel agent-volunteer, Julia, we made it at last. CCI has 3 yards, 2 Level IVs and one Level III. It’s an older location, a bit different in configuration from most of the prisons constructed during the rush-to-incarcerate of the mid-1980s-90s, when 22 institutions were constructed. CCI was officially constructed in 1954, but in reality, the facility dates from the early 1930s when it was a female institution.
We often have the discussion about where our information and programs do the most good—is it in the Level II locations, where many men and women just need a bit of nudging and encouraging assistance to reach the parole finish line, or is it in the Level IVs, where many are still early in their terms, trying to wrap their heads around where their lives and decisions have taken then and dealing with adapting to prison life? We may never really know, but we do know someone has to plant the seed of rehabilitation at some point in any lifer’s incarceration, and if we can do that, though it may take years to bear fruit, then we’re up for the challenge.
The first person we encountered after going through the sallyport was a Mr. Williams, one of the main drivers of the campaign to get us to Tehachapi. Though we’d never met, we knew it was him, because the mega-watt smile could only mean he was pleased to finally see the culmination of his efforts.
CCI was pretty generous with time; we often have to scramble to fit a 90-minute presentation into a 2-hour window, when questions can run long, and participants aren’t released to come until after the start time. But we were allowed a 3-hour time slot for each yard, which allowed everyone to get to the gym, settle in and ask all their questions, and there are always a lot of those.
On Saturday, moving from one yard to another between workshops, we struck up a conversation with a gentleman walking the yard, who turned out (to no big surprise) to be the Warden at CCI, Brian Cates. We had a brief and pleasant exchange with Warden Cates, who was happy to see an outside group coming to his facility and agreed that the motivation and inclination to participate in groups has to start on Level IVs and that sometimes it takes an outside instigator to begin that process. And for us, it was encouraging to see the Warden, in street clothes, without a posse of hangers on with him, walking the yard on a hot Saturday morning, talking with the men, the people, he is responsible for.
For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure of being in a prison gym, think dim lighting, terrible acoustics, echo-producing flooring, few windows, no PA system and, because it’s a prison gym, no fans or AC. Shouting to be heard in this concrete echo-chamber is enough to work up a sweat on its own, not to mention the 100+ degree temperatures.
One workshop on Friday afternoon and 2 on Saturday, starting at 8 am, makes for a long day, but as was evident from our conversations with the men at CCI, they feel a little more isolated than those at many locations. One resident expressed his surprise and gratitude that anyone would travel from Sacramento, to talk to lifers at CCI, just because we had information to help them, not because it was a paying job. He was sincerely appreciative when we told him we have plans to come back to CCI and do the other workshops in our retinue.
And we do plan to return, with Connecting the Dots (2 parts) and The Amends Project, for a total of 4 trips to Tea-ha-choppy in coming months. Next month, we’re booked into RJD in San Diego, another long trip, but also another institution with few ‘outside’ programs. We’ll keep going so long as there are lifers who want the information on suitability and we have the support of you folks, our members. Your donations and help drive our work.
If you’d like to help arrange for a workshop at your LO’s institution, send us an email and we’ll figure it out. Correspondence courses are a great resource, newsletters are a hugely informative pathway, and hopefully eventually CDCR will allow we ‘outsiders’ to reach out to the inmate population virtually, but nothing seems to replace the impact of meeting, talking and interacting in person with those seeking to rejoin their families and society and reclaim their lives.