I guess the first thing that comes to mind after yesterday is: The thirstier a fella is, the more he appreciates the glass of water.
Up at 5:30am, a cool and heavy breeze pushes in from the ocean, heavy with fog and the digital foghorn calls it's report in D-flat every 15 seconds. Occasionally, the distant bark of a seal punctuates the dirge.
We arrived at the prison just before dawn, and the heavy fog hung low over the facility, the deathly yellow light of the always-on sodium lights created a halo visible for the last couple miles on approach. One might say that the only true darkness was inside the prison walls. And yet,
We first met the warden and his staff and they were polite, gracious, white. They spoke with the slight drawl you come to expect from law enforcement and they seemed genuinely appreciative that we were there. They spoke of change. After about 15 minutes of pleasantries and procedure we got back into our cars and drove around to the backside of the prison where the first day's workshop would be held.
We went through security, swiftly, and were then inside the double layered fence, each layer topped with concertina wire, and sandwiched between them a 12-foot electric fence, the likes of which I have never seen and the likes of which have never allowed a human being to cross and escape.
Our locale for the first day was the visitation rooms of the A Yard and B Yard, the general population facilities of Pelican Bay.
We set up easels, and projectors, and screens. We distributed information packets in manila files, one on each of the 70 chairs that filled the room. 70 men in one room, and across the hall another 70 men in the other. The prison staff were admittedly nervous having this many inmates in the room at once. It never happens. Anything could happen, they say. Probably won't.
As we were setting up, I noticed next to one of the three visitation windows in the corner of the room, the sort where an inmate would visit with a loved one by telephone and through a thick pane of glass, an unopened cellophane wrapped cheesesteak sitting at the window next to a napkin. I'm not sure what to make of that, but it leaves you to wonder what precipitated it's abandonment.
When the inmates filed into the visiting rooms they looked like the other inmates I've seen in California prisons: tan and brown. They were polite, and most greeted us with a handshake. There were fewer tattoos among the inmates here, something one person conjectured was due to the difficulty the inmates have acquiring the materials needed to build a tattoo gun. Maybe so.
After filling it with their bodies, the men filled the room with the murmur of hushed conversation until the Captain called things to order and the day began. As with any assembly there were attentive folks, and listless folks, can't-be-bothered folks, eye-contact folks, no-eye-contact folks, and most interestingly, eye-contact-for-three-seconds-and-only-ever-three-seconds folks. They were the ones who reminded me that this was a culture, a society, where eye contact was a much different transaction than what we're used to, you and I. This was one of the telltales of institutionalization and the psychological hurdles that one day these men will face when they go home, if.
I took the floor midway through the day and talked about the ways that I thought writing and storytelling could help these men reliving the events of their crime, explore the impact their actions have had on their victims and their families, and expand their emotional capacity so that remorse isn't such a foreign and unfathomable concept. My first run-through was pretty iffy. I tried to stick to my plan, my notecards, and I accidentally covered all of them in about 4 minutes and realized I had another 41 minutes to talk. Holy Jesus. I've never spent 45 minutes talking to anyone, much less a group of inmates in California's toughest prison. Things got blurry and ambled my way through and at the end people clapped. Gracious folks. They filled out evaluation forms later and a few of those generous men cited my contribution as their favorite part, so maybe my rambling wasn't so incoherent as it was off the cuff.
Then I crossed the entry vestibule to the other visitation room where the other half of our team was engaged in small group discussions. I found an empty chair. I'm usually socially shy in these situations, but somehow I've come to know that these group discussions can be pretty remarkable. I dropped in on a conversation that a very tall gentleman with a goatee was having about the reason for his crime: a three on eight fight, wherein he was one of the three and felt he had to fight to defend his own life (and he may have been right) and yet by the end of the fight he hand one of the guys on the ground and was kicking his head like a soccer ball (his words). It took some time for the psychologist who was leading the group to make him see how his motivation ceased to be self-defense after the man was on the ground and on his way to dying. The tall man's brow nodded and his brow furrowed with thought. He was willing to give it some thought. He was discovering something.
He talked about how he really has no idea how to think about remorse, how to feel it. And another guy chimed in and talked about how they don't feel many emotions in prison. That emotional numbness is a real thing, and emotions associated with vulnerability are the first ones to go.
--- BREAK ---
It's now the day after I got back and the narrative above was written at various points along the way. In the motel parking lot, in the coffee shop where we stopped on the way to the prison, on the private plane that shuttled us up and down the length of the state. Now I'm sitting on the couch, immobilized by exhaustion, and sadness, and a burning need to make sure whatever little lights of hope we lit don't go out, and having no real means of doing that.
Yesterday we spent the day in the SHU. The Security House Unit I mentioned before. It's an ungodly place, an unhuman place; part science fiction, part military, part nightmare. There are shades of light you will only ever see in the Pelican Bay SHU. There are optical illusions that pierce you way down deep, in a place people call "your soul". One optical illusion in particular haunts me now, so it's the one I will try to explain.
The cell doors of the SHU are slabs of steel perforated with holes the size of your fingertip, as many holes as you can drill in such a slab without compromising its structural integrity. A lot of holes. The result is a total lack of privacy, sound and sight. In the SHU pod we visited (a pod is a cluster of six of those 77 square foot cells I described earlier) one of the inmates had fashioned his own privacy screen out of some kind of paper he was able to stick to that perforated steel.
So yesterday we interacted with men who were put into that tight corridor of visitation cells, a photo of which I sent in my previous email. They were about 3' by 3' and very close together. The only way we could address all of the men we intended to address, 141 of them in all, was to split up and each take 4 cells at once. So I would stand at the union of four cells –– imagine the corridor of a hotel, now shrink the rooms, and then position yourself where you could address the men in two rooms on one side of the hall, and two rooms on the other –– and there I would stand and talk to these four men for 15 minutes, and then we would rotate and I would move to the next quadrant of cells and have another conversation for a quarter of an hour.
One of the most difficult parts of these conversations was the optical illusion. The men were attentive, most of them, two-thirds of them, and they stood close to the perforated slab, some leaned against it, and they looked at me while I spoke. Those holes in the steel slabs were of a perfect diameter to encircle these men's pupils and block out the whites of their eyes, and their eyes became great, dark, hollows, the kind you might associate with madness, and they held these eyes on me while I spoke, and now I wonder if this optical illusion was by design.
I have much more to say, but this missive is rambling on, so I will let you toy with those ideas for a while, and will send more when the next ones have been properly articulated.