“Could be Worse!” Adventures in Maximum Security Prisons

     This essay begins in February 2009, and picks up again in November 2011.  In both months I had a chance to meet and talk with prisoners in California who had been sent to prison on a sentence of “Life without parole,” or LWOPed in the acronym-plagued prison system.  LWOP is the most severe penalty for murderers in California, exceeded only by the rarely used death penalty.  It is a form of degradation California reserves for people who are convicted of particularly venial types of murder.

     I do not of course meet such people very often in my daily life at Chico State where I teach Sociology.  But from 2008-2010 I was involved in a study of vocational education programs in California’s prisons which was funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  There I met my first prisoner on a LWOP sentence in the unusual circumstances described below.  Then last month, I took my criminology class to Chowchilla Women’s prison for a standard tour where I met my second LWOPed inmate.  So that’s the context for these stories which are not only about punishment, but about the human spirit, and particularly optimism in the face of degradation and humiliation.

Could Be Worse!

I was taken inside the Administrative Segregation Unit at a California State Prison in the middle of the desert in February 2009.  The prison is one of thirty three in California, but the only one located below sea level.  We went there to observe vocational education classes, but when we arrived we found out that the prison was on lock-down due to gang activity.  So after talking to the voc ed teachers, we looked for something else to do.  Our hosts offered us a tour of the “Administration Segregation” unit—the jail within the prison, known in prison jargon as solitary, or “the hole.”  After dressing us in the stab-proof vests that all non-prisoners in Ad Seg wear, we were brought into the building where inmates are confined.

“Ad Seg” is the place where inmates from the maximum security level 4 yard are taken for punishment.  To get there, you have to assault a guard, seriously assault another prisoner, be caught with a lot of drugs, be a nasty gang leader, or have been a real problem.  The Ad Seg Unit at this prison had 200 beds.  Inmates are bunked two to a cell, and permitted outside for only ten hours per week.  When outside the cell, prisoners wear handcuffs, and are shackled at the waist.  The handcuffs are removed only when they are in the cell, or in the outdoors exercise cage. If they must wait in the hallway for a lawyer appointment, medical appointment, or so forth, they are locked standing in 3’ by 3’ by 7’ cages.

Meals are prepared by the officers, and eaten either in a hallway, or inside the locked cells.  Indeed, this is what makes Ad Seg so expensive.  Tasks normally undertaken by prisoners themselves for 8-19 cents per hour, such as cooking, cleaning, and so forth.  In Ad Seg, professional prison officers do all this.

The cells are perhaps 10’ x 8’ and have two bunks, a sink, and a toilet.  The two bunks are concrete, with a 3”-4” thick mattress.  Inmates are housed by race.  Showering is down the hall and is twice per week.  They shower one at a time.

Inmates brought into Ad Seg are isolated for their first three bowel movements in a special cell.  This is done so they cannot smuggle drugs, weapons, or other contraband by swallowing them.  They are then assigned to a cell.  To be removed from the cell, they put their hands through a window for cuffing, and are always accompanied by a guard when outside.  They are moved around their area in their underwear.  If they are being let out for their hours of exercise, the cuffs are removed after they are in a cage, which actually looks like a dog run.

The ten hours exercise per week are in an outdoor exercise cage of about 15 by 30 feet.  The cage is open to sun for half of its area, and shaded on the back half.  The cement on the ground is well-polished since it seems that one form of exercise that the inmates really like is polishing the concrete with a wet rag.

 

When we came into the exercise cage area, there were three inmates in two adjacent cages, which is really the focus of this essay.  Two in their late twenties shared one exercise cages—they were also cellmates.  Another younger inmate was in the adjacent cage.  All looked white, though I guess they could have been Hispanic. We started to talk to one of the inmates who was in the cage with his cellee (cellmate).  He had a 37 year to life sentence, and was really interested in our study of vocational education because he believes that the parole board requires a lot of classes and a BA degree before they will authorize his release.  He had a Mohawk haircut, and a pierced nipple.  (I wanted to point out to him that a better strategy than a B might be to avoid doing things that get you sent to Ad Seg, but let it go.)

Gradually I drifted over to the inmate in the adjacent cage.  He was small, dressed in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, and had bandages on his knees.  He had a small goatee, and was missing his two front teeth.  At first he was hesitant to talk to me, but warmed up after pleasantries.  His favorite phrase seemed to be “Could be worse!” which he actually said with a smile and some cheer.  As in “How are you?” Answer: “Could be worse!”

I asked him how old he was—he was 21.  He said that he had been locked up for three years, after being arrested at age 18.  He spent three years in the Los Angeles County Jail until being sent to this prison the previous November.  And already he had done something to get himself put in Ad Seg.  He told me that he was from Los Angeles, and from a particular neighborhood, but only from south of some particular street.  Indeed, he noted, the first time he ever went north of that street was when he was arrested and taken to LA County Jail.  He told me he like to read vampire novels.

I asked him how long his sentence was.  He responded, “Life without parole!” I think he noticed the surprised look on my face.  There are only about 3000 prisoners in California with such a long sentence, and he was still smiling when telling me.  His response to my surprised look was his trademark “Could be worse!”  This surprised me again.  How, I thought, could it be worse?  This 21 year old, was three years into a sentence which would last probably fifty or sixty years.  He had killed someone in a particularly venial fashion in order to get the sentence in the first place.  Then he had done something really bad in prison to get himself arrested again, and put into administrative segregation.  He was 21 years old and had the next-to-worst-sentence California offers, on a good day he would be in a maximum security level four prison in some desert. On that good day he would be pressured to be part of prison gangs, maybe work in the prison kitchen, do dishes, and clean the floor with a mop that has a handle.  And unless he was transferred to another prison on a bus in daylight, he would likely never even see a tree for the entire time. On a bad day, he would be arrested, and be stuck in another cell in administrative segregation where someone would be counting his bowel movements. To this Ph.D. it was obvious that things could not get much worse.

Ok, I didn’t tell him all that, but I did manage to stutter out, “but how could it be worse?  You are in on a Life without Parole sentence, and in here, in a cage!”

But he thought the answer was obvious.  What could be worse than this?  “Hey, I don’t have the death penalty!”
Uh, yeah, good point, I guess.  And I am the one with the Ph.D.?

 

The next question I asked him was about his legs.  They were covered with red burn scars from the feet up to the bottom of his boxers.  He told me that the burns occurred in an auto accident in which his legs were burned by gasoline after which he was arrested (apparently he was fleeing the police).  He was proud that he had recently had surgery to permit him to walk again—grafts had been taken from his stomach (he showed me the patches from which the skin had been taken), and put onto the back of his knees so that he could straighten out his legs again.  He was actually quite pleased with this condition. “After all,” he said, “Could be worse!”

I have spent some time on the internet trying to figure out who Mr. Could-be-Worse is.  I Googled around, but could not find any murderers who met his description: Murder in 2006, three years in LA County Jail, conviction in November 2008, born about 1988, and severely burned upon arrest following a police chase.  I couldn’t find him in any of the newspapers.

Which brings up a final point about prison, which is that things never are as they seem, and manipulation and deception are normal and routine.  Officers and prisoners are agreed on this.  So what do I really know about this guy?  He was locked in a dog kennel in one of California’s maximum security prison, was severely burned, small, and young.  The rest I have only his word—

 

We Need the Death Penalty for the truly Evil—I’ve Seen Absolute Evil—Some People Indeed are Worse!

Which brings me up to the present day (November 2011).  I took my criminology class on a prison-tour three weeks ago, and met my second LWOP prisoner, this time at Chowchilla Prison for women.  At the end of the tour, we asked the Lieutenant if we could talk to inmates.  He brought out two women who were part of the leadership liaison for the prisoners and administration.  As it turned out, both women had life sentences.  One had been in prison since 1994 and had a plain old life sentence.  She later told us that she was 42 years old.  The other woman, who appeared older (perhaps she was 50) was down for a sentence of “Life Without Parole.”

Unlike the 21 year-old LWOPed prisoner in the desert, though, this inmate was a respected part of the prison leadership.  Indeed, as our tour guide indicated, he really liked working with such inmates because they are among the more stable in the prison.  Lifers are less likely to cause trouble for the prison officers, and can even control the more volatile younger prisoners.  After all, as another prison officer once pointed out to me, the lifers are there for good, and regard it as their home.  They do not want their home defiled by the antics of young hooligans.

Anyway, one of the Chico State students asked the two women a classic question about whether criminals are “born” or made that way by society.  This is when we got a rather strange response from the LWOPed woman.  She responded that she believed in the death penalty, because there are some people so evil that they are irredeemable.  She went on to add that she had seen true evil at Chowchilla (which also houses the “condemned row” in California for 19 women awaiting execution).  This, I mused, was an unusual way to answer such a question from someone who had missed the death penalty herself by not very far.

But, I suspect as with Mr. Could-Be-Worse, this is ultimately a relative statement.  Status, and ultimately a sense of self-identity is established relative to whoever you can plausibly compare yourself with.  In essence, for the LWOPed inmates I met, the death penalty provides reassurance that there is something worse than themselves.  This is a very human reaction, I suspect—all of us at some level are comparing ourselves to those around us and concluding that we ourselves are at least a little better than the others.  I guess to go on with life we need to believe that things could be worse, even when we are in the “hole” of one of California’s prisons.