by Dorothy Maraglino
If the local news anchor reported a story about eight women living in a 19 by 24 foot studio apartment, red flags would fly high about the subpar living conditions that might exist. Yet that is how most of women within CDCR live. There are eight women living in a 19 by 24 foot cell containing 4 bunk beds, two sinks, a toilet stall, and a shower stall. There is a barred window between two of the bunks looking outside and a small window between the remaining two bunks looking into the hallway. The door is secured and only opened during “unlocks”. This allows inmates to come and go to authorized time out of their cells (medical appointments, school, job, and recreational time, etc.). The news has made much lately about the lavish living conditions of inmates. Nancy Grace made comments about smoked oysters being at the canteen store. The fact that the one so-called luxury item is something you might find at the dollar store and that few inmates could afford or would even enjoy such a “treat” was cleverly omitted. The reality is that canteen is limited to highly processed, salty, carbohydrate-saturated foods that might survive a nuclear winter such as dehydrated beans, crackers, and ramen soup. There is nothing fresh or healthy about the choices. In the following paragraphs, I hope to convey some of the realities of prison confinement.
The confinement of prison takes on many layers. The restrictions that permeate prison life are physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental. Each prisoner must decide which restrictions he or she will resist and which he or she will brokenly accept. Some restrictions challenge a prisoner’s resolve to obey the rules more than others do. If fashion is what you use to define yourself then clothing restrictions or cosmetic restrictions may be hard. The battle ranges between remaining an individual and being a prisoner. Some days are hard enough just to remain human. Some of the restrictions challenge a person’s willingness to live at all.
Physical restrictions are the most apparent and the most challenging. You may only go to the places that you are designated as “permitted” to go. If you are assigned to C-yard then you are not allowed on A, B, or D. If you are not assigned a job behind work exchange then you are prohibited from going there without a pass. There is no going to a friend’s residence or stopping by the canteen window. Within the yard, you may not go into buildings you are not assigned to. Within your assigned building, you may not go into the rooms other than the one that you are assigned to. Within your room, you may not use a bed that you are not assigned to. Red “OUT OF BOUNDS” lines litter the building floors, yard, and walls. Disciplinary action may be taken for any infraction of crossing lines or being somewhere at a time when you do not have specific permission to be there. A girl stopped by a sick friend’s room to drop off some soup she had made. Since she stepped inside the room, she was given a disciplinary write up for being OUT OF BOUNDS. Her punishment was loss of dayroom for 30 days. This loss meant she had no access to the phones to call her family for a month. These restrictions punish all equally. No matter how valid the reasons for these restrictions may be they are restrictions, nonetheless, and felt by each inmate who lives within them.
Each prisoner is keenly aware that you may be physically held and restrained by force, cuffs or location at any time the staff deems it necessary for the safety of the facility. Many would assume this would only be during threat of violence but that is not the case. In spring of 2018 an inmate passed away from cancer in her cell. Per standard operating procedures, each of her roommates were strip searched, placed in a muumuu dress, handcuffed and walked to a segregation unit on another yard. The policy states they must remain confined until the cause of death was official. Depending on the medical examiner this could be anywhere from one day to several. These were women who were mourning the loss of their friend, whom they had nursed during her illness. In that fresh raw grief, they were forced to endure humiliation, physical restraint and enhanced confinement.
Within your room, there are restrictions on the door being locked and a lack of privacy. Your bunk is open and exposed. You may have up to seven roommates plus you in a room. You cannot get away anywhere because the room door is locked, unit door, yard gates, and the many gates between you and freedom. Within the number of people in your room, you are restricted on how many people can be up at the same time. Walking to the restroom can create a traffic jam, if more than two people are up at the same time. The space between the two bunks in the middle of the room is around 3 feet. The restroom offers no privacy as there is no window in the top and bottom opening of the door. The same is true of the door on the shower. No bodily function is performed in private. Your morning grooming is at one of the two sinks in view of the room or in front of your locker in view of the room. You must make space for your bunkmate and sidecar so they may also get ready at the same time. This claustrophobic condition is a contributor to in-room violence. If you have personality conflicts or domestic issues, the room that is already small gets a lot smaller.
The rules dictate what you can wear and where you can wear it. Certain attire is designated for work, facility yard, main yard, medline, chow, etc. There are rules not only saying what you can wear but how you can wear it. You must wear an item as it came in the package. Altered clothing is considered contraband. Rolling up pant legs, taking in a seam, or other alterations is considered a violation and will deem the clothing item “contraband” even though you paid for it. The fact that some staff will turn a blind eye occasionally or even usually, only adds to the landmine feeling when you are reprimanded for improper clothing. Clothing and grooming is a way that people distinguish themselves; this restriction is both physical with a touch of emotional and mental. Makeup is allowed in subtle colors only. Hair is allowed to be wild or shaved or anything in between. If you wish to cover your hair, then there are many rules regulating that.
Another physical restriction is what you may consume. Technically, you are not supposed to consume drugs or alcohol. You are restricted to eating the limited selections of food allowed in the chow hall, canteen or the quarterly boxes. Unless you are well provided for, you will be restricted to consuming the food provided in the chow hall. Nutritional supplements are limited as is exercise. You may be allotted several hours a day to exercise but that will be contingent on your fellow inmates not getting into fights or staff calling off work causing a staff shortage restricting programming. Your mandatory assigned work and school hours and the weather may also affect your access to program opportunities.
Programming is also another form of physical restriction. The prison will assign you where you are to work or go to school. You may try to get a particular job but ultimately it will be up to your counselor and other staff members. It would not be unusual for you to be on the waiting list for a program and yet see someone not on the list at all get the position you seek because of his or her networking. If your roommate’s play mom’s cousin’s kid’s girlfriend works in the office with the hiring supervisor of a position that is sought after, than you are more likely to get the job over a person who simply fills out a request form which is the standard procedure. This can feel like an injustice and extra form of restriction.
The personal property you may accumulate is also restricted. There is a list of items and quantity that you are permitted to have. You may purchase items from only the approved vendors. Anything you purchase from another inmate or acquire as gifts or payments is considered contraband and may be confiscated. There is no personal privacy so your property may be searched and taken at any time. Creature comforts are limited to what you are willing and able to purchase and what you are willing to risk having taken away.
Communication is another form of physical restriction that can also be emotional, spiritual and mental. Communicating with the outside world is essential to maintaining relationships with family and friends. You may make 15 minute phone calls up to 3 times a day, depending on schedules and availability. The hours of the phone are restricted and you may only call when you are not assigned to be programming. A person who works an IDL, PIA, and other early jobs will only be allowed to make phone calls in the afternoon and at night (if the dayroom is open). Their workdays begin at 7am before the day room is open and the phone is available and they do not return until right before the afternoon unit recall. Letters are delivered at the pace of the pony express, and at the discretion of staff. If the mailroom is short staffed then mail might be delayed weeks. Emails are available now but also require screening and may be delayed hours, days, or weeks. This restrictive access to family and support circle members can be emotional and mentally restrictive as well as physical. Communication within the prison is also restrictive.
Your access to inmates assigned to live on other yards is limited. Notes and letters are often traded on job sites, classes, and groups, but may be confiscated. Inmate to inmate communication is a learned skill for many new prisoners. There are a limited number of prisoners who come from a middle class, non-gang, non-drug related society. Those inmates have the biggest learning curve when transitioning to prison life and learning to communicate.
Prison is a melting pot of cultures and communication styles. This can make even basic interactions a landmine field to navigate. There are women from all over the state and from all walks of life. There are women here who are millionaires. There are women here who were homeless. We have women here who have advanced degrees and we have women here who can barely spell their name. All of these women are thrown together to co-habitat with no say in whom they live with.
All of the above contribute to the emotional restrictions of prison. The separation from the familiar, your family, and conditions of confinement all contribute to the emotional restrictions. Every prisoner must go through a mental health assessment when they arrive at the prison. This is supposed to happen quickly but can take up to a month. There is something profoundly emotionally distressing about watching a person be forced off their medication when they arrive, not allowed to see the doctor until their name comes up on a list. Over the days, you see how they are consumed by insanity. Being witness to the worst humankind can offer is bad enough but to see the glimpses of humanity that are constantly stamped out is worse.
Dorothy Maraglino is a powerful writer who draws from her personal experience with incarceration to produce stories that she hopes will resonate with others and inspire change. This is the fourth and final part of a guest blog series by Dorothy. The first post can be viewed here, the second here, and the third here. Dorothy also writes for the Prison Journalism Project.
Dorothy Maraglino’s book, “My Inside Voice” is now available on Amazon!