When I talk with people about what we do, going into prisons to work with the men and women who are ‘residents’ there, I frequently am asked if I’m ever afraid. After all, these are ‘the worst of the worst,’ in much of society’s eyes, those incarcerated for usually violent and often fatal crimes. Isn’t it scary—or more to the point, aren’t ‘they’ scary?
Well, yeah, I’ve been concerned from time to time while at various prisons, but never because of the actions or aggressiveness of the inmates. The COs, the guards, however, have been a source of concern on occasion. To be sure, not all custody staff share the same view of those they watch—we’ve met many custody staff who are concerned, supportive, and even helpful to us in presenting programs. But of course, there are others, with other attitudes and agendas.
The first time I was ever threatened, obtusely but with intent, was years ago at High Desert State Prison in Susanville. Times have changed, to some extent, and in the intervening years Dave and I have been back many times to do workshops at HDSP, now with the support and assistance of the forward-thinking administration and staff there.
So, it was at the invitation of the prison that we returned recently to High Desert to roll out our newest workshop, ‘Unraveling Parole Hearings,’ with plans for 3 presentations on HDSP’s 3 facilities (B yard has been closed since October of last year), beginning with one on Friday afternoon and two more on Saturday, held in the gyms of the respective yards for up to 50 men each yard, starting on A yard, the SNY facility at HDSP.
The men who attended were eager for information, glad to see in-person presentations coming back to the prison, with lots of questions and generally were on par with groups at a Level IV prison—a bit hard-headed and argumentative at times. Since we acquired state Brown Cards last year getting cleared for entry is pretty easy and we are often allowed to walk to our destination unescorted.
Such was the case at High Desert that Friday—there were lots of things going on that day, a food sale on a couple of the yards, visiting was in progress and the usual hustle and bustle of an institution housing over 1,500 men. We arrived at the gym, the men started flowing in, we were busy passing out booklets and other materials and whoosh—the program was underway. Part way through the 90-minute workshop, I noted, sort of absent-mindedly, that there were no guards in the gym with us—somewhat unusual, as CDCR usually wants to have a presence everywhere—but certainly not concerning.
At the end of the program there was the usual hectic scramble to get our materials together, answer the myriad of questions from many men wanting individual advice and getting them out of the gym on time—count time to be exact. All the men were hustled out the door, headed back to the housing units to be counted, like so many beans in a jar, as they are 4 times a day. We finished gathering our ‘stuff,’ ready to depart until the next morning, strolled to the gym doors---and stopped dead in our tracks.
The doors were locked. We were locked in. The prison gym. Nary an inmate or guard to be seen on the yard, through the small, bullet-proof windows in the gym doors. Everything quiet as a mouse and no movement.
Well. Now what?
Dave, a veteran of course of 23-plus years of lockups, outwardly pretty cool, but his eyes flashing ‘helter-skelter,’ was NOT happy. He began tapping (not to say pounding..) on the window with his ring finger, which produced a nice ‘tap tap tap’ that might have been heard if anyone had been within 50 feet of the door. When that action produced absolutely NO response, he took off his belt and using the metal buckle began a ‘bang-bang-bang-bang-bang’ staccato on the window. With precisely the same results—crickets.
Convinced that staff would start looking for us, if nothing else, when we didn’t sign out at the end of the day, I sat down on a metal bench and organized our paperwork into orderly piles. Dave found a piece of paper, slipped it through the hinge of the doors and began waving it up and down—but there was no one on the yard to see it.
And then it hit me. Indelicate as it is (my apologies), all the Coca-Cola consumed on the trip up to Susanville came home to roost and I needed a restroom. So here I am, in the gym at a men’s prison—for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, there is one regular restroom facility in those locations—in the guard’s office, which was, like the doors, locked tight and tidy. For those denizens of the prisons, should they need relief while exercising in the gym, there are a bank of urinals behind a waist-high wall at one side of the gym floor. But those denizens are not women.
Well. Now what?
In the midst of his continued (and eventually successful) attempts to bring attention to our plight, I asked my intrepid husband if he’d also be the look-out and let me know if rescue was imminent, so I could, umm, prepare myself, so to speak. I think he heard me—at least he nodded, in time with the bang-bang-bang and up/down waving.
So reassured (sorta) I’d not be taken by surprise, I crept behind the wall, to the urinal bank—and oh-so carefully accomplished the needed task. Again, apologies for the TMI. And just in time!
Less than 2 minutes later, voila! Someone in green appeared with keys—and questions. And rather than being chagrinned, he was politely aggressive--Why didn’t we have keys? Why didn’t we have an alarm? Why hadn’t we left with the men?
1. You want to give me keys to HDSP? OK, I’ll take ‘em! Didn’t know we could obtain keys (of course we can’t.)
2. No one gave us an alarm, we saw no reason to ask for one—do you think we’re in danger? (because we don’t)
3. Because they were going to count, we were still packing.
Oh, and by the way, here’s a question for you—why weren’t you doing your job, being aware of what was going on in the yard and where people were? Dave asked the guard in the gun tower (built above the gym) if he’d heard him beating on the window—and green-o said, yeah, but he just thought it was someone in the gym bouncing a basketball.
Really? You don’t know that it’s count time, and everyone’s supposed to be in their assigned locations? Do y’all loose people often?
In the end, of course, all was well, we trekked through the sally-port and out the gate (all unescorted) and into town, to prep for 2 sessions the next day, which went very well, with staff very helpful and even interested
Was the gym lock down experience harrowing?
Nah, not for me, though I think Dave may have had a pang or two of flash-backs. Just another episode in “As the Prison-World (Mal)Functions.” That’s the world we work in, immerse ourselves in and try to improve. But if anyone offers me a prison key—I’m taking it!