The trouble with going to prison. Part Two.
March, 2011

Part 2 of 3

We have 11,000 difficult neighbors just down 101 at Soledad Prison (medium security) and Salinas Valley State Prison (maximum). It’s the largest prison complex in the state, not counting many of our Salinas neighbors who just haven’t graduated yet.

The “mainline” is where the general inmate population spends its time. “Special needs yards” house inmates targeted for assassination on the mainline. These include all manner of sex offenders, snitches and gang dropouts. There exists an inexplicable pecking order among inmates that puts murderers at one end and “baby rapers” at the other. The code is strictly enforced.

Lockdowns are frequent, especially at Salinas Valley. This is all you need to know: during a lockdown men are locked in their tiny cells 24/7 except for 10 minutes every three days to take a shower. Then back to your “house,” fresh as a daisy, for another 72 hours. People learn how to do laundry in the toilet. In some places, toilet flushes are on a timer. You know, to save water.

Soups and soaps are the general currency of “the joint,” but cell phones will cost you cash. Phones are smuggled in and rented out to fellow inmates. Some enterprising extortionists charge other inmates “rent” to live on the yard, payable to family members on the outside. Also strictly enforced.

Manipulation is the dark art of incarceration. Having lost any power or position on the outside, some inmates turn to controlling other people or events for their benefit. Sometimes it’s frivolous, often it’s deadly serious. The biggest dogs are the “shot callers.” Their orders can extend to other prisons or to Salinas streets. When discovered, they and other in-house offenders wind up in a Segregated Housing Unit – a prison within the prison known to inmates as “the hole.”

Young lifers can’t believe it’s really happening to them, old lifers know it’s all too real. Unlike the movie where the guy had 20 years to dig a tunnel, there are frequent transfers between cells or prisons. Hence some lifers tell stories of the old days at Folsom or San Quentin, or something Charlie Manson did, true or not. Even so, every lifer hopes that a different political climate, fiscal crisis or judge’s ruling will open the door for him to go home. Victims’ families and friends, of course, wish they were already dead.

“You’d be surprised what you can adjust to,” is what inmates say about the never-ending tedium, loneliness, claustrophobia and violence they live with. Some adjust too well and become part of the institution, like those fish people in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ They’ve given up on being successful on the outside and are comfortable in prison. Others, not so lucky, go mad.

Violence is commonplace. Fights break out between individuals over a look, between races over a table, or between dormitories over nothing. Officers respond with pepper spray, batons or tear gas. If inmates storm the walls, as has happened, rubber or real bullets may be used.

Tell you what, though, I have to commend the officers and staff that run our prisons. As you can imagine, it is a very tough, stressful job. There are lot more people on the blue (inmate) team than on the green (officer) team. Officers are watched, manipulated and even assaulted. Yet through it all they comport themselves with impressive professionalism and courage.

Finally, to all the Salinas gangsters and wannabes out there, breaking into houses and packing heat: Hell is real, its name is Prison, and it’s always got room for one more.