On a gloomy day 17 months ago, I reluctantly boarded a bus to leave San Quentin, a prison where inmates find hope in an incredible array of rehabilitation and educational programs. A few months ago, delighted and filled with gratitude, another bus brought me back.
Strolling through North Block on my way to a college course, I overheard another prisoner complaining about this prison. It made me smile to think some men have no appreciation for the amazing opportunities San Quentin offers. Inmates at other prisons literally beg for a transfer here.
For those of you who don’t know, let me tell you about my odyssey these past months.
CA MEN’S COLONY
My first stop was CMC-West on the California central coast. The prison is an old U.S. Army barracks converted to a prison in the late 1940s. Each yard has 10 old and decrepit wooden dorms jam-packed with 90 men. Many of those A-frame buildings are termite infested and are mice breeding grounds. CMC-West is devoid of the multitude of programs you find at San Quentin.
The yards stay swollen with men who have almost nothing to do except exercise. Unlike San Quentin, that prison is full of what the CDCR has labeled as disruptive groups. In contrast to S.Q., there are only a few rehabilitation programs.
To quell California’s overcrowded prisons, I, along with other men, was transferred from CMC-West to an out-of-state prison. We wound up in Wasco State Prison, housed in a building that is a staging center for out-of-state transfers. Phones are unavailable, and no laundry exchange for clean clothes or bedding. Only two showers were allowed in 13 days.
The facility is the mirror image of administrative segregation (the hole). Yard and privileges afforded to Main Line prisoners did not happen. After two weeks, I departed Wasco with 39 other unwashed, stinking men for the long bus journey to Arizona.
Red Rock Correctional Center is a private prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, which is under contract to house California inmates. The facility was clean; the cells are large and offer amenities that are not available in California prisons. For example, each unit is has an ice machine, two 40-inch flat-screen televisions and 47 channels of cable tuning, and a yard equipped with professional weight machines.
Also, prisoners are allowed to purchase a wide variety of personal property: boom boxes, X-boxes, Playstations, personal pillow and blankets, to name a few.
I arrived in Eloy, Ariz. 16 hours after leaving California. Two days after my arrival, the prison had a full-blown race riot; staff and prisoners were injured.
After a month of lockdown, the prison was on modified program, allowing prisoners out of their cells for three hours a day. After a week of modified program, the Southern Hispanics assaulted two correctional staff members, resulting in a Hispanic lockdown.
Two days after the Hispanics were locked down, the white and African-American prisoners had another race riot. Then the entire prison population was locked down.
The riots were troubling, but what concerned me further was that the staff did not appear to have riot-control/prevention training.
There are no guns, the guards carry no batons and had difficulty regaining control of the prison. Amenities are not a replacement for safety and Red Rock Correctional Center is not safe.
RETURN TO CALIFORNIA
I returned to San Quentin Feb. 17 to finish the Prison University Project (PUP), which I was enrolled in before being transferred.
I am grateful to be back and to be able to participate in the rehabilitation programs, especially PUP, which was instrumental in getting me transferred back.
San Quentin is unique in its low violence, multitude of programs, and the overall environment. Make no mistake: it is a privilege to be here. I never thought I would be happy to go to a prison, but S.Q. is superior to any other I know about.