*Rara’s Quarterly Box was sent today
Originally written 10-12-14
I don’t know when this was last updated, so forgive any repeat information. I’m writing this from Chowchilla—California’s largest correctional facility for women. The prison is separated into four “Yards”, or areas, and I am in A-Yard, which is where receiving is done. Much like airport or military-zone receiving, this is where we are classified, checked, processed and endorsed. All female inmates in this State pass through A-Yard before going anywhere else so I am in close proximity to all types of people with all sorts of charges, dialects, and life histories. There’s so much information about this place and how it works that I could fill a book, but I’m learning.
First and foremost, you should know I am 100% safe in the physical sense of the word. I haven’t so much as tripped since arriving here, let alone been subject to anything violent or sinister in nature (Well, during my physical, the doctor cut my chest, and one nurse bruised me during a blood draw—but otherwise I am good J). Mentally/emotionally, well, I’ve seen better days. There is very little input here and most of it is negative. I am better today, 56 days into my prison adventure, than I was at first. Thank God for mail, the lengths a reader will go to rescue a book, the restorative balm of productive manual labor, and kind bosses all around the world.
And, not to start at the end, but—I won’t be on A-Yard much longer! I was done being classified and will be endorsed by tomorrow. From then, it could take 2 to 4 weeks to go anywhere—and I am praying to transpack directly to my destination which is CIW! Yes. Your positive thoughts worked and I’ll be headed toward the prison closer to home where I will be able to join Fire Camp and get home early. My counselor believes I will be headed there before Halloween. My mail will follow and my prison ID will stay the same (WF0124). The method of putting money on my books will remain the same, but sending paper and stamps directly to me is a better use of money because those things are money here and they are not subject to administration fees or restitution. $10 put on my books is $4.50 for me. A 10 pack of Dollar Store cards is worth $20 in barter here. Not that barter is allowed, but, you know. J Life finds a way. Another good use of financial contribution is to help my hubby buy my quarterly box. There’s so much information there that I know doesn’t make sense—sorry! As I said, this pace is a brave new world with a mess of new words.
Here, our charges are almost irrelevant. Everyone here is only obsessed with time. First, there is “the time you got”—or your actual sentence. Mine is 3 years (In truth, mine is something like 9 years where charges run concurrently. Oh, legal nonsense). Then, there is percentage- mine is 50%– so I am called a half-timer. Half-timers are eligible for a variety of programs and milestones. 85 percenters are not—or, as the girls here say, “85ers got nothin’ coming.” My % means I will only do 1.5 years. First, my “credit” (meaning the time I served in county jail) is deducted, and then the remaining time is cut in half. Credit is a finicky thing because we do double-time credit in county jail, called “good time work time”. The judge can choose to grant us this double time, or not, and the prison can decide to grant them, or not. In my case, all of that worked out to a sentence of 651 days, with 388 left to do as of today. Thus, my SED (sentence end date or release date) is November 4, 2015. That’s a Wednesday! J If I transpack to CIW (which means- if I am transported and established at the Chino prison) by the end of this month, and am immediately brought into the Fire Camp program—and if I pass the training within 3 months- then I will start earning more than just day-for-day credits (programs and milestones are ways that reduce sentence time or provide other perks like a salary or certain liberties. Fire Camp is a program and a milestone, as a reward for its grueling nature. If I am successful in the program, I will be buff, certified to work at a firehouse, and home for my 31st birthday). Please continue to wish me luck—it’s working! J
A-Yard is a strange place, but I have become as cozy as possible here. It was a difficult adjustment. We don’t get news here, and we’re not allowed phone calls. Mail is a complex process so I didn’t receive anything for the first 20 some days. It is very far away from home, and we are in an odd sort of moment between isolation and constant-closeness. I often equate it to a train station; waiting, surrounded by volume and business, nothing of value to do but stay still. The kitchen is broken so we eat microwaved, processed foods jam packed with sugar. The library is closed so we have only the books that loyal readers smuggle through, and the few that are sent to girls here. The Cos (correctional officers) are kinder than county deputies, but it is harder to “bond” with them because they see so many of us come in and out. By the time we make friendships of note with girls here, they are moved along as well. Our housing is often shuffled due to the constant flow of medical emergencies, the illegal but ever-present nature of gangs and girlfriends, and regular fights. It took a minute for me to orient myself.
As far as housing goes, I “live” in 502, which is the building with 8-woman cells. 501 and 503 have 2-woman cells. 504 is death row. 703 is A-Yard medical. We have a building for mental health, and that’s all on A-Yard. Oh, well, we have a yard too—a large dusty, grassless field sprinkled with pebbles and ants. Walls of my cell—which we call a “room”—is made of soft brown brick. The doors and windows are a morganite-pink and we have full-sized lockers in a once-gray-green-tan. There is toothpaste all over the wall—some in creative designs, and others in spots that used to hang something (toothpaste is our version of double-sided tape. J). We have long fluorescent lights- all of which but one go off after count at 10:30 pm. “Count” is where they walk around and make sure every inmate is where we’re supposed to be, and alive. We do two a day, one at 4:30 pm and the other at night. Not being where you should be, or not being dressed as you should be, at count could result in a 128. A 128 is a first-step write up—like a formal wrist slap. If It happens again, or if whatever you did is too big for a simple 128, you get a 115. A 115 is a write up that could come with an additional charge, or additional time. At the very least, it will keep you on A-Yard longer. No one wants to be on A-Yard longer than absolutely necessary. Well, almost no one. Some girls are afraid to go “over the wall” (to be endorsed by Chowchilla proper and be moved to B, C, or D Yard) for various reasons. Chowchilla is known as the most violent and chaotic of all the prisons, probably because it has had a longer time to establish itself as such. Also, it is a high-level prison and houses lifers—many of the smaller prisons do not. I am a “level 1”, meaning “mostly harmless”. Some of my dearest friends here are level 2 or 3 because they are strikers. Lifers are considered a short-termer’s worst nightmare because they have nothing to lose. I have met many—they we all exceptionally kind to me. Where I’m going there are some lifers, but not one in each room as it is at Chowchilla. It is a prison that accepts up to level 3. Folsom is a level 1 and 2 prison, but offers no milestones– only a salary based program. Folsom makes the products we use here—PIA soaps and milk cartons. Macfarlane is also a low level prison—it’s very small. Patton takes all levels, but is only for crazies. CIW is also prone to violence, like Chowchilla, but it is the softer sort if Roy is to be believed. Roy = Rumor On the Yard. J
My friends from county jail counselled me on how to avoid violence and, though their advice was mostly unnecessary since it involves behavior I am unlikely to partake in, it’s been comforting to see that they didn’t steer me wrong. No drugs, no tattoos, no gangs, no unwarranted nudity, no girlfriends, no potentially offensive slang, no stealing, no antagonizing cops = no problems. Luckily, all those things come easy to me. Other girls are not so blessed. Here, stories of unwarranted violence are rife. It’s probably the most racist place I’ve ever been and my “other” status offers some measure of protection. Some girls get worked up over something as simple as braids. The gay-for-the-stay aspect is as out of control as promised. I went to a “wedding”, on A-yard—meaning the lovebirds knew each other less than 90 days (as that is the federally-mandated maximum time they can keep us in receiving without cause). In truth, they knew each other 20 days and were married “on the outs” to men. Well, one man each, but—grammar aside—y’all understand what I mean. They tattooed each other’s’ names on, with staples and crushed up pencil—and broke up 10 days later. Such is life. As part of the whole girlfriend thing, and as part of the drugs, and racial bonding, the women here often “abscond”. They go where they shouldn’t. It’s a veritable zoo when good COs aren’t here to keep the sanity. I am lucky because my normal housing CO’s are phenomenal—trustworthy, trusting, and kind. And observant. I have a job with Mr Smith and Ms Mendoza as a porter. Basically, at 2 pm, I mop floors and empty trash. I stay out of my room till count, then dinner, and then go back to work till the 10 pm count time. The jobs are coveted because there aren’t many openings, they offer a lot of freedom, they get you out of the room, they earn you phone calls, and (though not allowed, obviously) they provided a lot of opportunity to steal things given to us in moderation or not at all. Since I don’t steal, and since I have a good room, and since I don’t mind small spaces, and since I don’t need phone calls, I often tell (those I can trust with such a truth) that, to me, the only perk of working is working for Smith and Mendoza. It is good for my emotional health to be around people who have hope for me, an understanding of the world I come from, and a measure of trust (that I’ve earned). I guess getting off my bum is a perk too. J Exercising in my room has limitations. Plus working for Mr Smith has the added benefit of making me feel safe—he has that vibe, and being around it does a lot for my ability to rest easy.
Not everything here has been easy, or just a trail of my mind. My first bunky was, what the girls call, EOP—a good candidate for the extensive outreach program. So was my second bunky, and now so is my sidecar. There’s a large quantity of women who need mental health care here, but EOP candidates need that and more. All three had threatened their own lives and the lives of my roommates—and all three throw tantrums of legendary bigness. J It’s tried my patience and all levels of my education and child-rearing expertise. For some reason, all three stop themselves before getting violent with me, or even aggressive. Possibly, because they see angels around me. It “sounds nice” but, oi—it’s mostly creepy. My sidecar, during her schizophrenic episodes says Mr Smith looks like a dark angel. She says she sees his wings and his true face. *shudders* It gets weird here—really weird.
Smith and Mendoza aren’t the only two professionals here who I trust, but they are amongst a small number. Most of the others aren’t bad—just distant, uninterested, unable to be helpful, or ill-equipped to deal with trouble. Other than Smith, I have found a fondness for Dr Beach. He was the one who cleared me for mental health, and the one I went back to after I had a panic attack (mild; I was fine after a minute but sure that it indicated the degradation of my mind and my long-worked-for ability to manage anxiety. He suggested that perhaps I was overreacting to what was a normal reaction to such new circumstance). My interactions with him are bittersweet because I could see him at a house party with our friends– but instead I am in all orange and lost in an entirely different social sphere. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if he was not here—had several more panic attacks to be sure. Every time I have an “in my head” problem I seek him out. Every time I have a “in the world” problem, I bug Mr Smith. It’s a functioning system.
The A-Yard system could use some Rara-love. It barley works. Anyone who doesn’t believe good administration matter needs to see this place flop around like a fish out of water trying to kiss a monkey on crack. Once we get to A-yard, we take off all our clothes, have our crevices flashlighted (sorry for the visual) and are dressed in polka dotted muumuus. We get a mug shot, get fingerprinted, write down our emergency information, briefly speak to a doctor who weighs us and are assigned IDs (I weighed 132 lbs on arrival. I weigh the same now). Then we walk to our assigned housing where they decide where to put us (I was put into room 28. All the girls I came up with were housed in 503). We wear muumuus till the following day, where we are also given 5 pairs panties, 3 bras, 5 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of pants, 3 smock shirts, 1 sweatshirt, 2 nightgowns, and a pair of converse-looking shoes. The underwear is not washed or replaced by the State for 6 months so we do that in our room. The rest is exchanged every Tuesday, if we want to. Many girls prefer to wash their own clothes because they like to keep “the good ones”—the ones that are brighter orange. The girls call those “crispies”, but I prefer the fade stuff. It’s softer and cozy. I turn in my clothes instead of washing them because- pah, I’m not going to buy soap to wash the State’s clothes. That’s nuts to me. I don’t value beauty as much as the women here, though.
Shopping and smuggling are two pastimes here that are very much built around beauty. Because shopping is harder and more limited here than at most counties (including my county), smuggling becomes a “necessity”. We can only shop once a month, only $110 worth, and the options are kinda pathetic. We can’t buy noodles, or razors, or any make-up. The food is mostly candy bars, chips, $0.60 sodas, $2 ice cream bars, and random oddities—like honey and sardines. Oh, and coffee of course. This is a complex ecosystem—delicately balanced and often unhinged. Can you imagine giving up 1/10th of all your monthly shopping for mascara that you might be forced to wash off? Can you imagine only being allowed to shop once a month—and the first shop is stressful. I’ve never considered how much shampoo I use in a month, or would use—it depends on the water, the shampoo, the dustiness, etc. Talk about anxiety-inducing situations.
Oh yes, but the system. After we are dressed and housed, we are checked for TB. Then, the ducats start. They are little yellow slips of paper that tell us when and where to go. Several things need to happen before you are endorsed anywhere. You need to attend a orientation that defines rape and prison policies, you need to attend an orientation about over-the-wall politics, you need a lab blood test for contagious things like HIV, you need a hormone lab test, you need to pass a mental health exam, you need to take a reading comprehension test (I aced it), you need to see a dentist (I got a good score), and then you need to see a counselor.
My counselor was—bleh. She put me in a funk for a minute, but now! Now I am just happy that I am done here. I’ll be near my hubby soon! Being off A-Yard will also expand my canteen options so I can eat something besides butter slabs to keep my weight. The girls here pour through catalogs in preparation for their quarterly boxes. The Qboxes can be sent to us once a quarter (obviouslyJ) through an approved vendor, and can include whatever we want up to a certain weight. It is our chance for… everything, really. The women here mostly dream of TVs, Walkman, and tablets—the 1st two doesn’t interest me at all, and I hear the tablet runs $300 after buying all you need. It sounds like a waste too. But, I am looking forward to a cheap watch (so I don’t have to rely on solar panels and the feeding pattern of birds), a sports bra, and pre-cooked bacon. And a pen that isn’t the cheapest thing ever made by BIC. J I won’t know what else I will need till I get there– hygiene products, a bag to hol my stuff in case I need to move in a hurry, maybe another lock (I’m blessed to not really need my lock in my current room). The girls buy stingers to heat up water… I really don’t know what’s necessary and what is like the TV—a prison tradition. It’s one aspect of this experience where I cannot rely on my friends. Most spend money poorly, misuse resources, and are heavily affected by peer pressure. They pay each other for nicer shoes here, just because they don’t want to be judged for their older (prison issued) shoes. Or, as my young roomie says, “I can’t believe I laundry exchanged my good sheet. I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.” As far as resource-management, I am struggling to not let the culture of here erode my skills. The problem is that (a) we never know what’s happening from one day to the next, (b) one person can wildly change a group dynamic, and (c) no privilege is guaranteed even if you are an ideal prisoner.
For instance, I was slated for my monthly shopping on the 6th, but missed it because they lost my ID. Had I splurged last time, it wouldn’t have been a problem. I didn’t splurge last time because all my belongings have to be left in a room, and—even locked—become an unnecessary lure. I love these ladies, but most are consummate thieves, and proud of it. Plus, my roommate could have changed out (and they did), and I might have been left with bullies (I was not). I am hoping to shop this week with 2nd draw shoppers, but I might not be allowed, even though none of it was my fault. When I do, I won’t know if I’m shopping for 1 week here, or 4, or what I can take or what I will be forced to leave, or what is silly to buy here because CIW has a better/cheaper version, or what I need to buy here because CIW doesn’t have it, or even if I’ll be able to shop at CIW at all on arrival.
Given all that, what would you buy? J
When I arrive at CIW, within the first few weeks, I will see a councilor there. She or he will be able to establish me in Fire Camp & maybe school too! She or he could also see about ankle monitor programs that could get me home even faster! I will be okay no matter the course, but I will continue to wish for any good thing that allows me home. CIW has contact visits, so instead of plexi-glass phone calls, I will be able to Hug whoever visits—even if it’s just a minute. I’ll be able to get on the phone again, which I don’t often do, but it’s a nice reassurance to know that I can.
I am grateful for the mail—it is my only connection to all of you, or the world in general. I am looking forward to seeing you all soon, or at least being in a place where I am once again part of our world.