Just Another Lockdown


California State Prison in Lancaster

Today was a typical day — on lockdown: no work, no phone calls, no yard, cell feeding, showers every three days — absolutely no outside prisoner movement without an escort. Like most of the lockdowns here on Facility-A, in Lancaster, California, the restrictions are due to staff, not us. No riots, no fights, no contraband.

Actually, like everywhere else in today's society — whether closed like ours, or open like the general public — there is a euphemism for the unpleasant. Lockdowns are no different. Prison officials like to call them “modified programs.” Though the majority of us are, indeed, locked down, there are some, considered “critical workers,” who are allowed a little extra freedom. Usually, these very select few are assigned to one of the departments critical to the operation of the prison, like the main kitchen or laundry. Their extra freedom consists of two privileges: work and a subsequent shower.

Thus far, we have endured sixty-four sporadic days of such shut-ins during a seven-month period. The majority of the lockdowns have been due to staff shortages.

It's no secret that the guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association — one of the most influential unions in the state — was able to obtain one of the sweetest contracts in the history of its existence: gaining a thirty-seven percent pay hike for their employees, while the remaining state workers got a three percent pay raise. Along with that astronomical wage increase was also a tasty provision that allows the guards to call in sick without conformation by a doctor's note upon their return.

It’s like they take turns calling in sick and signing up for subsequent and abundant overtime. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, they raked in $277 million in overtime last year, all, of course, at taxpayers' expense.

I've gotten accustomed to the lockdowns now. I either write, read, watch a little TV or perhaps, listen to music.

Though against the rules, a departing fellow prisoner left me his compact disk player (we either have to donate such items, usually to the prison, or send them home. If one has no funds on his prison account the latter option is out. We aren't allowed to donate personal property to other indigent prisoners).

It's the first CD I've ever had since Sony and Philips jointly introduced them in 1982. Though another no-no, I borrowed Anita Baker's “Rhythm of love” CD from another prisoner and the sound quality was amazing compared to any other musical medium I've ever heard before.

I was writing when track number three, “Body & Soul” rotated in and took me there, out there, somewhere, away from here. I was so enraptured by Anita's smooth, velvety voice that I was gone — motionless and starry-eyed.

So transfixed was I by her seductive, operatic sound that I didn't even hear my cell partner calling me. And, man, was I annoyed when he brought me back!

It wasn't one of those endless efforts at survival by killing time, as so many strive for, but an indelible musical-technological experience.

Some in society complain that we're even allowed these amenities — these creature comforts that make life in an otherwise barren concrete and steel lockup bearable. It's these items, and only these items that make the difference between a cell and a cage.

In June the case of Ronald Banks, a Pittsburgh prisoner stripped of his First Amendment right to read newspapers and magazines while in solitary confinement, was denied. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented from the majority who ruled in favor of the state. Stevens wrote: “The ruling comes perilously close to a state-sponsored effort at mind control.” I'd take it a step further than a jurist – – though respectable – – who sits far detached from anything close to the hell we daily endure while he sits in America's highest ivory tower: I'd call it a psychological and cognitive lobotomy in circumvention of the state-imposed physical lobotomies on prisoners of the past.

Already stripped of everything meaningful in life; freedom, family, free will, choice and dignity, all we have left are our minds and these things that stimulate our minds and creativity. It was my new, but simple experience with a now dated technology that inspired this piece.

When I say that it is these things, these amenities — these creature comforts — that make life in a concrete world of subsistence bearable. I mean literally.

Here in California, the state with by far the most draconian and inhumane sentencing structures in the U.S., the suicide rate is about twenty-two deaths per 100,000 prisoners, in comparison to the national rate of about thirteen deaths per 100,000 prisoners. The rate of self-inflicted deaths in California prisons is so dramatic that Don Thompson of the Associated Press wrote, “inmates are killing themselves at a record pace.”

It's hard for some to fathom life so bad that one would want to purposely end it, but these are usually from that segment of society who are left to only “fathom” it, while those who are set apart to live it possess a more intimate and devastating experience. Especially when the department of “corrections” and “rehabilitation” falls significantly short of its own title and duties and would be more fittingly called, “The Department of Idleness and Lockdowns,” or “The Department of Eighty-Percent Recidivism and Ninety-Seven Percent Parole Denials” — The department of mass failure at a cost of $9 billion a year.

Despite the mask of smiling faces we all learn to wear, prisons are what they're designed to be, and then some; dark, depressing places of exile and aimless eternal punishment. Still, there's a fine-line between constructive punishment and inhumane, destructive treatment and retribution.

Yet, like most prisoners, slaves, serfs and other oppressed people denied anything of substance to help them progress and succeed, many of us remain defiant and determined to make something productive out of nothing.

Meanwhile, I continue to write, while contemplating who I can borrow my next CD from.

Since 1996, The Beat Within’s mission is to provide incarcerated youth with consistent opportunity to share their ideas and life experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community. Outside of the juvenile justice system, The Beat Within partners with community organizations and individuals to bring resources to youth (between the ages of 11 -17) both inside and outside of detention. We are committed to being an effective bridge between youth who are locked up and the community that aims to support their progress towards a healthy, non-violent, and productive life. The following pieces come from our weekly workshops which were recently held in one the 18 juvenile detention facilities – from Hawaii to San Francisco to Washington DC – we venture into each week. From the writings we produce the national publication, The Beat Within. For more information please visit us at www.thebeatwithin.org.

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