A group of college students got a first-hand, up-close look at the California prison system on a recent tour arranged by a former inmate.
About 20 students from Loyola Marymount University went on the Prison & Jail Tour created by a formerly incarcerated man, Francisco “Franky” Carrillo Jr.
Carrillo was innocent, and he proved it several years ago with the help of the LMU Law Clinic. After obtaining his freedom, Carrillo worked to educate others about the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration.
The 2019 prison tour was organized by Charlye Sweeney and Emma Gibson. For Sweeney, a 21- year-old communications major, the journey was personal. Her father was incarcerated. She had unanswered questions about what the systemic oppression was like for him.
The educational trip started at the California Center for Service & Action – LMU Alternative Breaks program.
LMU Alternative Breaks has a number of trips it coordinates for students. They have the option of taking trips to places like Haiti and Ghana to do humanitarian work combating poverty, hunger and genocide, or visiting jails and prisons.
Growing up, Sweeney heard stories about prison being a distant, unwholesome, crowded and noxious place for people.
They visited the Los Angeles Twin Tower Jail Mental Health Infirmary first. The firsthand account of one officer was tough for Sweeney.
“The officer was just telling us how it’s us versus them, and how he can tell who is mentally ill, and who isn’t,” Sweeney said. “It confirmed what I heard.
“It was horrible to see how people were living in there. It was dehumanizing, and they were not benefiting from being in jail like that.”
Gibson said, “They told us how they checked on them every 15 minutes, but we all felt like what they were saying was odd.”
Sweeney and Gibson reported the sheriff’s deputies explained that past reports of police brutality were not true in the mental health infirmary but happened in Central Booking.
They also visited the Reception Center and general population at the California Institution for Women (CIW).
They spoke to incarcerated peer counselors who assisted other women with anger, substance and drug abuse, education, and other cognitive behavior needs.
At CIW the students met a male guard from Corcoran State Prison. He was contemplating transferring to work at CIW because he said he hated working in the men’s prison. Originally he wanted to be a children’s hospital nurse, according to Sweeney.
“The women’s facility was so different from Corcoran. It’s too different; it doesn’t feel like a prison,” the male guard said, according to Sweeney.
Soledad was the next prison the students visited. Sweeney said the Soledad prison information officer (PIO) said, “You’re going to have a great time at Soledad.” However, Sweeney said they did not get to interact with prisoners.
“I didn’t like that it was super selective,” Sweeney said. “We did not get to see any cells or where they sleep.”
The PIO took them to a prison-based dog program where prisoners train service dogs for disabled people.
“One of the men talked about crying when he had to let his dog go,” Sweeney said. “It’s like your kids— you help them grow, and they grow up, and come back to see you, but the dogs don’t come back.”
San Quentin was the last stop on the prison tour. They went to the Museum, looked at old memorials and learned its history before going inside the prison walls.
Once inside, they were escorted by SQ Lt. Sam Robinson to the Art Building to look at the painting and art of prisoners. There Sweeney met artist La’ Mavis “Shorty” Concoiwilla, who is serving life in prison.
“La’ Mavis’ story touched me, because he told me about how his daughter was sick in the hospital, and he was just trying to take care of his daughter who died,” Sweeney said.
Concoiwilla said, “I told her I wish I had a daughter to call, and get on her nerves, but I can’t. I told her, ‘Her dad’s greatest punishment was not being there with her.’”
The group also visited the SQ Media Center, including the San Quentin News. Sweeney said she felt more open at San Quentin then the other prisons, because the students were able to interact with prisoners and hear their stories without a guard towering over them.