Saturday, November 19, 2005

IMPERIAL VALLEY: A MONOLOGUE IN TWO ACTS AND AN EPILOGUE

Any factual errors in the following are entirely my fault, in trying to reconstruct 24 hours in an environment quite outside my normal orbit purely from my memory. This was written on the train from Palm Springs, CA to Houston, TX.


Everyone's counting the days


ACT I

"This is BRAWLEY!" shouted the Greyhound driver, and booted me out at a nondescript small-town corner around dusk. This was Main Street, Brawley, in the Imperial Valley, thirty miles from the Mexican border, and the only shop around which seemed open was a car battery store.

Luckily, Mark was right on time to pick me up; I gratefully dumped my 50 pound backpack into the back and clambered into the front of his massive hulking pickup truck. He suggested stopping by his favourite bar before going out for dinner; I was all for the small-town experience, and we went.

A few words about Mark Bourland, recently promoted Chief Deputy Warden of Calipatria State Prison. In a single word, pleasant. Unlike many well-built men, he's unassuming and gentle conversationally; what he does say is usually worth listening to. The twelve hour plane ride to India spent chatting with him was... pleasant.

Which, on the basis of my single day there, is also the word I'd use to describe the Imperial Valley. Mile after mile of flat cattle-feed farm uniformity, dotted with bales of hay to be compressed into cubes 18 inches to a side and shipped to Japan to feed Kobe cattle. Not that there isn't enough local cattle ranching - when the wind is right (or wrong, depending on your point of smell) you can smell them from over in
Calipatria. The area is famous for its Calipatria sweet onions - huge white orbs of hamburger veggie heaven. The claims to fame of the town itself are, firstly, at 174 feet below sea-level, it's the lowest incorporated town in the western hemisphere, and secondly, it has the tallest flagpole, coincidentally also 174 feet. The bar we stopped by, the Alamorillo (sp?) is the only smoking bar I've seen in California.
They have cook-your-own steak nights twice a week, apparently the biggest steaks you've never seen in your supermarket. Most of the small group of regulars over there is farmers and contractors, which is why Mark and a few of his prison employee friends like it there. Everyone knows everyone else.

One of Mark's friends at the bar, a month and a half away from retirement from the prison, was looking forward to his new life in a spring-break town in Arizona, where he'll be working as a pasty
applicator. Obviously the job nomenclature was a favourite trap for newbies like me; on seeing my quizzical expression, it was explained to me what a pasty was (stick-on half bra), and the two primarily preferred means of "applicating" were graphically demonstrated. The conversation naturally segued from there into whether Mark was going to take me to Miaow Miaow ("Oh no, not there") or the Cleopatria ("Certainly not!"). Extraordinarily similar to high school :)

My abnormally low tolerance for alcohol meant that one Ultra later I was already buzzed, which gave Mark an excuse to leave early. I think he wasn't sure how comfortable I was there. "The O'Reilly Factor" was no longer playing on the radio as we drove for dinner to the newly refurbished Beers 'n Burgers, where some of Mark's motorcycle riding buddies were hanging out. The conversation meandered over Mark's recent trip to India ("those crazy drivers... crowded... so noisy... Taj Mahal was lovely... amazingly green countryside"), his impending move to Mississippi ("housing is really cheap there") and the previous two weekends ("I was the chili cooking competition judge two weeks ago - terrible cooking, and the exchange-student get-together last weekend had a rodeo - I think some of the kids thought we were being cruel to the animals").

Soon enough it was time to head home. Mark fed his cute little Maltese dog, showed me the photo album (addressed "To Dad") of one of the kids he'd hosted as part of the student exchange program he participated in (picture of kid standing in bodybuilder posture, with caption "just like muscles, only smaller"), we watched TV, and I went to bed.



ACT II

The morning TV traffic report on the LA freeways reminded me how close we still were to the coast. The top story in the local newspaper was the Farmer of the Year award. Had a headache from lack of sleep (wake-up was 0600 hours) and, quite possibly, a minor hang-over; was going to be one of those days. On the way to work, saw the Calipatria High School basketball team on their daily four-mile run.

Mark talked about his job. Loosely paraphrased - "I treat people with respect, and expect respect. I call them sir or mister. Some people consider this weak. The prison riots, some officers - I don't want to say they got what's coming to them, nothing justifies violence against another human being, but some people take pleasure in using their authority over others."


Calipatria has one of the most well-defined city limits I've ever seen. On one side of the road bounding the city at the north there's bales of hay and signs of life, and on the other side nothing. Except, a discreet distance away, the prison. The State Prison is far and away the largest employer in the town - over 1100 people directly employed, and over 4000 maximum security prisoners, twice what the prison was designed for. Plus smaller numbers of minimum security prisoners, and INS... oops... sorry, DHS detainees. Twelve guard towers on the perimeter, of which only two
are manned, and have armed guards. Three concentric fences - two 10 foot barbed wire fences with a 12 foot electrified fence in between, tall enough that it would be hard to cover it with anything to climb over. The electric fence used to kill a lot of birds and small animals and the local animal rights groups used to give a lot of trouble until, just "... like everything else, like toxic ponds, the animals learned to stay away". The electrical engineer in me wondered whether there could be a simple circuit which would only trigger current on a capacitance change corresponding to a large mammal...

As required by the form I'd had to sign, I was NOT IN BLUE DENIMS.

Mark's first order of business was paperwork. Number of people reporting for work, inmates, (over a hundred came in the previous day and about ten left), inspection sheets, and so on. A report from the Chief Medical Officer about a problem inmate. Mark shows me the interview sheet "... I'm only asking that someone do something about this pain of mine... fucking Jews {Mark: the CMO is Jewish}... why don't you just bend me over and fuck me in the ass without greasing me..."

Mark then took me around and introduced me to various people. The pasty-applicator from the previous night was there, and he proceeded to tell Mark's female secretary about how I'd been let into the joke the previous night. Introductions were also made with the warden ("good choice for a first stop") and various other prison officials.

It seems Mark had told a fair number of people about me and my visit. The CalTech-Ph.D.-MIT-post-doc cachet seemed to carry weight. The number of times I was introduced via that, or as a rocket scientist, got embarrassing, though it was flattering that Mark thought the better of me because of that. I was mainly surprised at least several people seemed to have heard of CalTech.

The legal department is kept fairly busy. Inmates have the right to sue the prison and its officials. During Dia de los Muertos (the Mexican Day of the Dead, when one honours ones ancestors), the tortillas which tradition dictated should have been served were mouldy, and so Mark ordered them replaced with corn bread. He got sued for that.

The records department (it was called something else) was choc-a-bloc with files. There was a significant heft to the number of pages a single inmate accumulated during his stay there. It all came down to points, explained Mark. Anyone with over 59 points automatically got transferred to a level IV maximum security prison like Calipatria. As a prison official, he had the power to add upto 360 days to someone's sentence (administrative time), transfer people between lower and higher security
prisons, and move exceptionally troubling inmates to ASU (I forget the expansion of the acronym - essentially, it seemed to be the rough equivalent of solitary confinement, except without the solitary part, and some of the confinement part - civil rights requires some time out of cells for everyone).

The education department dealt with periodic instruction for prison officers. A particularly catchily-titled course was "The Code of Silence", an 8-hour court-mandated course on ethics which everyone just loved. One of the education officers and I got talking - his son was just crazy about MIT, and would be disappointed to learn that in my humble opinion CalTech was better. He thought that there were definite possibilities for information technology in prisons.

It was then time for the twice-weekly meeting of senior prison officials. The warden obviously runs a tight ship - a well controlled meeting where everyone knew what was expected of him and her. Vacation plans, maintenance work, the upcoming move to crowd prisons even more (some prisons were using gymnasiums as holding areas), how to handle the medical care of the "fuck me in the ass"-prisoner, several disturbances
in some of the other of the 33 California prisons with 160,000 inmates were among the administrivia discussed. Mark tells me that when he started in the prison service in 1983, there were 12 prisons. Inmate numbers have gone through the roof, especially after the "tough-on-crime three-strikes" proposition California voters passed. He doesn't like it, for all the usual liberal weenie reasons (I'm not saying he is one :)

As Mark had to handle a tribunal for the ASU prisoners, I was handed off to the able care of an officer I'll refer to only as S (since I haven't asked his permission to post this). The first stop was the infirmary, which was basically like a hospital with extremely locked doors. The next stop was the euphemistically acronymed R&R.

"I'm guessing that's not Rest and Relaxation?"

"Nope. Receiving and Release," replied S.

Every inmate entering and leaving the prison needs to pass through that concrete block, where they are processed. Belongings are organized and packed or stored, and so on. Essentially, a warehouse, and a busy one. That day another large number of inmates were being moved in and out.

S walked up to an inmate and asked
"How's your motion? Not got no motion no more?", to which the inmate sullenly remained silent.

S says of another person in R&R. "I used to be with this guy all the time, but then there was something about an inmate's broken arm. Don't know what that was all about - my memory's all hazy..." Laughs.

We watched as inmates were being taken off from a bus that'd just come in. One of them had a shiner. the driver told S "He says he bumped his eye on a file cabinet." Laughs. "We like those file cabinets. Less paperwork for us. In school you tell, you get into trouble. Here we encourage you to tell. We'll protect you if you tell." Laughs.

"What was that business about the motion all about?", I asked later.

"Anyone can file a petition to look into someone's personnel file. Mine's squeaky clean. Lots of complaints, but nothing on my record.

"They don't like me.... I'm what's called a necessary evil.

"There was a prison riot this August. Twenty-two officers ended up in hospital. Several fights broke out in several different places. I myself spent three minutes fighting for your life, you know how long that is. They tell me I was hit on the head with a crutch - don't remember that - do remember the punches though. There was an officer slashed to the skull."

"Do you have any weapons?"

"Only my baton. Honestly, I prefer using my knuckles."

It was time to tour the ASU. To enter the building required showing my visitor card to an armed person on the second floor. Rows of cells leading out from the center, with a narrow yard at the end. "Used to call them dog-runs, but ACLU doesn't like that."

"What do inmates get sent here for?"

"Dealing in drugs. Getting in fights. Rapes. Murders. Stuff like that."

"How long do people stay here?"

"Depends on ICC. There's an inmate who's been here five years. Killed a man."


Tight schedule. S wants me to see the knife board before we tour the mainline (cell area). He has to do something else, so temporarily hands me off to another officer who takes me past the mail readers and telephone monitoring equipment into the office containing the evidence room. Someone's carefully constructed a display board containing various examples of knives made by inmates - the board is used for training purposes. It's quite astonishing in the variety of materials used, and
inventiveness in construction procedures. The handles of plastic toothbrushes have been sharpened against the concrete floor into sharp points. The handles of cabinets, made of thin aluminium, are ideal - they pass through metal detectors, and can be sharpened into deadly weapons. Razor blades from disposable razors are melted into toothbrush handles. Styrofoam cups used to be standard issue, until it was discovered that any styrofoam object held over a heat source (such as lighters or bulb sockets), melts into blobs which can be rolled like play-dough when still warm, but when cool is hard as wood. Now the plastic objects are made of a plastic which crumbles in heat. Pieces of wire shaped into arrows, tipped with the blood of a HIV+ inmate, used as a dart to hit officers or other inmates.

"We need to account for EVERYTHING! We ask for hair shears to cut hair with back. If the inmate refuses to, we need to do an extraction - two officers in riot gear + two more + two inmates in a cell. Can get quite crowded in a 9x6 cell. Easier in the ASU - less personal property."

"You need to be part of a gang in here, otherwise you're totally defenseless. The gangs in here control the ones outside. The messages are written really small, wrapped in plastic, shoved up the ass, and passed to people about to go out."

S and the other officer show me a video of a prison riot. "Hispanics and blacks in the yard. See how they're all going to the restroom, suddenly. You can see it coming. if they're standing around the edges, no-one exercising, you know there's going to be trouble. And because of civil rights laws, there's nothing we can do about it - we have to let them out into the yard, where most of the violence happens." Suddenly fights break out. "The officer up there had to fire some warning shots into the
ground to break it up."

We walk over to the yard of a mainline cell.

"The inmates are like cockroaches - they get stabbed fifteen times, get up and walk out. If I were to be stabbed fifteen times, the only way I'd be outta here would be in a stretcher. It's something to do with the will to live, determination."

"Why are there no free weights?"

"The California legislature removed free weights."

"Why? They were being used as weapons?"

"Well, yeah, but mostly 'cos police were tired of putting scrawny 170 pounders in jail, and watching 220 pound giants come back out. Not an ounce of body-fat. Sheer muscle. A whole generation of extremely fit criminals on the street."

A phrase I often heard was "being on program." This meant, I think, a certain routine to prison life. Due to the recent riots, Calipatria was out of program, in lock-down. In fact, this was a relatively frequent occurrence at the prison. It was designed as a "program level four", an experiment. This means, apparently, that the basic architecture was designed as a level three prison would have had, meaning less fences, less control. This, according to S, was the main reason why things often spun out of control. For instance, having the main line area in a level four prison as a 270 (i.e., with a two hundred and seventy degrees of vision for the armed guard on the second level) was a bad idea. A better design would be a segmented 180. Much more regimented, compartmentizable. Ditto dining areas. Instead of the exterior entrances, there should have been a narrow entrance with armed guards in the level above.

S said, "I've been in law enforcement twenty two years; eleven here. It's too late for me to change horses in mid-stream - the money is good and it's hard to get that kind of job out on the street. I just put in a pool in the house. The kids, the mortgage. People come in to work here without knowing what they're getting into. That's bad. I know you're not, which is a good thing. A whirlwind tour of prison is the best kind of prison tour there is."

We enter main line. The first thing I hear is a whole bunch of cat-calls and smooching sounds - presumably I'm being welcomed. There's a sign requiring face-plates for all prison officers, so inmates don't spit on you. S goes into more details about the prison design, but I'm tired, my head is aching, and I want out. Besides, it's time for me to go to where Mark is holding ICC, and soon he'll drop me off at the bus-stop.

We get to where Mark and four other officers are going through cases. It seems very cut-and-dry, no-one jumped acrosss the table at Mark, as he's said has happened a couple times when an inmate didn't like his decision. Everyone knows the routine - the prison officers, the guards, even the inmates. Surprisingly, the question that's most often repeated pertains to timing - when will I be released/transferred/go to court? One would think that that's the part everyone would know best.

Mark takes off early to drop me off, deputizing another official to take over the board. My bad - when I was planning the trip there were intricacies about Greyhound bus timings and stations I didn't realize, which is why I need a ride at an inconvenient time, and I appreciate him playing soccer-mom.

While we're checking out of the prison, the guard asks Mark, "How many days?" "Two hundred and twenty one," comes the pat reply.


EPILOGUE

On the trip to the bus-stop, I ask Mark what other people who tour the prison on his invitation remember the most.

"Not the inmates, or the cells or anything like that. The doors closing behind you... I take all the kids I host on a tour of the prison. Some think we're too harsh on the inmates. Others, in particular the East Europeans, Russians, and Turkish kids, think we're too soft."

We talk about life in the Imperial Valley. "Friendliest people I ever met," says Mark. "I needed to move stuff, and this farmer I knew loaned me a truck, trailer, and driver. We have the pilots from the Navy's Blue Angels over for dinner all the time. I was on the city council a couple of terms, and even mayor for a bit."

"How was that? Must have been quite different from the structured regimen at the prison?"

"Oh, the amount people can talk about trivial stuff. And there was excitement during my term too. The sheriff - he was mixed up in some nasty nasty business. I was about to report him to the prosecutor, when he answered a call on his own cellphone, and the guy shot and killed him and his own mother."

We drive past a huge white pile next to a small factory. "That's a mountain of waste from the sugar-beets. It ends up in animal food."

"How safe is it, in these small towns?"

"Very safe. So many people connected with the law nearby. There was a burglary near my house, the burglar tried cutting through a prison official's yard, who jumped on him and held a gun to head 'til the police came."

We reach the bus-stop, and Mark sticks around to make sure I get a ticket. We say our farewells, and I sincerely invite him over if he's ever around Boston or anywhere in India.

I'm on the bus to Palm Springs to catch the train that I'm on as I write this when the border patrol gets on and politely checks everyone's IDs. This is, after all, not too far from the Mexican border, and I'm surrounded by Hispanics on the bus. For an instant I feel a pang of anxiousness as I pat my pocket to make sure my passport is on me - there is an unpleasant similarity in this experience with that of the prison
officials checking me every so often this morning.


I wondered how to write this particular entry. For some reason, it seemed important to me to hold on to the memory of the day. I had no idea why I'd wanted to tour the prison, and I still don't really, but I'm glad I did. I finally decided to do a core-dump of memory, staying as close as possible to a faithful rendition of events and not trying to fit it in with the "style" of the blog. Of course, Mark will probably also go over this entry, and hopefully this will withstand his scrutiny.
My opinions are rarely injected, though perhaps simply the choice of what to recount from a very packed day is a significant editorial decision in itself.

Despite the very one-sided view I got of life in prison, it's clear that the story to take away from this is no "Shawshanke Redemption". The particular contrasts in the lives of people running the prison and those in it is eerie. (Another minor coincidence - "March of the Penguins" is playing in the background as I write this, with Morgan Freeman reminding me of Red.) I see similar depersonalization in mom as she treats her patients.

Being in academe and in particular being a student, one gets used to levels of personal freedom that are unique. All us students talk about going into "the real world". For some it's a chance to make some money, be treated like an adult, and explore what opportunities such a life-style affords. Others, like me, happily spend as much time as possible in the sheltered, almost cloistered environment of our ivory
towers, trading off opportunity and money against not having to work your ass off, security and intellectual freedom. For very few of the people I've spent so much time with over the last nine years, however, does "the real world" mean anything even remotely like what it does to the residents of the Imperial Valley, whether voluntary or not. I suppose that's what this Amtrak trip, and my repititive wanderlust, is
about.



Mark outside Calipatria State Prison

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