What is a Palooza, you ask? Well, so did we. And while we can’t find a definition anywhere in any dictionary, it seems to be a shortened version of the word lollapalooza, which translates (loosely) to an amazing or extraordinary thing.
So, when we got an invitation to participate in the Prison Palooza at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, how could we say no? Anything that’s extraordinary or amazing involving a prison, we HAVE to be there for. Not to mention anything that lets me get a look at another part of a prison that I haven’t seen before, yeah, count me in. We’ve been doing a 12-week program at CMF for the last 6 or so years, and while I’ve walked most of the halls and been in several of the classrooms, chapels, gyms and the like, I hadn’t been ‘on the yard,’ at least not at CMF.
And for those of you who don’t know, ‘the yard’ is where it all happens in a prison. It’s where the residents congregate, recreate, excogitate, communicate, disseminate, pontificate, associate and sometimes even altercate with each other. (yeah, that last one was a word stretch) We came early, at 7 am, and settled in to talk to any and everyone about parole, rehabilitation, hearings, programs and basically get to know more of the men who live at CMF.
We’d come prepared, we thought, with about 200 slips for those who wanted to sign up for future sessions of R.I.S.E. (Rehabilitate, Implement, Succeed, Excel), our long-running 12 week course at CMF, but by noon all the sign up slips were gone, as were the over 100 copies of Lifer-Line, and most of the other pamphlets and informational treatises on a number of parole-related subjects. The foot traffic was often a traffic jam—everyone had a myriad of questions.
Several other agencies were there as well, including DAPO (parole) and the BPH, Social Security Administration and a handful of other non-profits running groups and classes at CMF. And while we haven’t yet had the chance to check in with the folks we know from those other organizations, we do know that BPH was sending folks our way for information on programs, both in person and by mail.
CMF is a medical facility, and has, among other divisions, a hospice component. And perhaps that’s one of the things that struck me the most—the number of disabled, ill, aged and truly incapacitated men that our society still keeps behind bars and wires. Many of the patients were being cared for by other inmates, the ‘gold coats’ (hospital and hospice workers) and others, who maneuvered wheelchairs through the crowds, made sure their charges were protected from the often-chilly wind whipping across the yard that day and constantly talking with them, collecting handouts, papers, information the patients asked for. One of our students brought his charge over to meet us, a man clearly in the last stages of his life, but beaming a huge smile, enjoying being outside, once again in the hustle and bustle of life. He was unbelievably frail, almost too weak to speak, but JoJo, our student and his caretaker, was laser-focused on this man’s needs, exquisitely solicitous of his care and comfort.
The care shown by JoJo’s actions, expressions and demeanor are one of my lasting memories of that day. JoJo has an LWOP sentence. When we first met him in RISE he expressed his resignation to spend his life in prison. But JoJo has found new hope and purpose, in part because of what he learned about himself in RISE and, I think, in part because he sees the contribution he can make through his work in hospice. He’s working on a commutation petition; one we will support in every way we can.
There are about 2 dozen condemned men housed at CMF, or at least that’s their sentence from the courts. We met several of them, some of them signed up for RISE, because while the court system seems intent on killing them, they haven’t given up on themselves and life. And neither have we.
One of these, living under a sentence of death, is now disabled and wheelchair bound. He was attended by another of our RISE students, another man with an LWOP sentence. I was privileged that they shared with me some of their dark humor observations about the two death sentences, ‘the long and the short,’ humor they use to get through the days that could otherwise be unbearable. These men are changed, and I want to see them given a chance to share their hard-won knowledge of life, self and responsibility with others.
As to the Palooza’s intent, to promote interaction between the inmate population and other stakeholders (think staff and ‘vendors,’ like us)—well, that was likely a mixed bag. There was plenty of interaction and discussion between residents and people in the informational booths and tables. And yes, there were games set up on the yard providing opportunities for prisoners and staff to compete—but most of those tossing the bean bags and the like were clearly incarcerated, though toward the end of the day there were a few players who might have been staff, notably, however, none in unforms.
The bands offered a wide variety of live music and were a popular draw throughout the afternoon, an infrequent diversion most of the men seemed to enjoy. And certainly, there were efforts to make the day less custody conscious, with most of staff on the yard dressed in black shirts and chinos, not the usual unform and CMF’s warden out walking and talking with everyone, from early in the morning through the day.
There will be more Paloozas, as this event seems to be one of the lead ups to Gov. Newsom’s plan to ‘reimagine’ CDCR, corrections and prisons in California. And we’ll be there whenever we can, meeting more lifers and sharing more hope.