Tuesday, February 3, 2009


When I leave home most Tuesday nights, the sky is pink and the road across horse country glows with the fading sun. I pass fields where paint ponies and Arabians bend into their evening hay. Hares and skunk dart across the road and families of mule deer scamper into the trees at the sound of tires on the narrow pavement.

I turn right on the county road, pass into thickening subdivisions and mini-malls, and descend past the interstate into the Sacramento Valley where lights from the city on the horizon spark into life in the gathering dusk. By Folsom Lake, the road swings hard left into the town where its high-priced shops and cafes line up along the American River and over the bridge I go, beyond the sprawl of large lots and manor homes to East Natoma Street where it wends left into fields of oak trees and dark rolling hills.

Suddenly the walls come up in the dark like the outer buttresses of a Japanese castle and the sign says to darken your headlights where the road comes up to the guardhouse. I am at Folsom Prison, first opened in 1880 some 20 miles from the California state capital, a million miles away from wherever you are reading this.

To enter the facility, I register at the guard house, then am marched to a second guardhouse inside the old, original tower where I hand over my pass and id to a second officer who buzzes me through the gate. As I walk beneath the towering granite walls, they're watching every step, and gate after gate magically clanks as it's unlocked before me.

More than 4,000 medium and maximum security prisoners are stuffed into overcrowded tiers of cells, two prisoners in each along with bunks, toilet, and sink. This night, I'm inside the cell block, walking the yellow line between the five-story high bank of cells and the outer wall--but the prisoners are not in them. They're sitting on the concrete floor in front of the cells. If one were to stand up, he'd be shot with a rubber bullet. Just before I arrived one of the Hispanic gangs discovered a rapist in their midst and beat him senseless on the yard. A rubber bullet, meant to disperse the attackers struck the rapist in the eye. Now, as I walk down the stairs, descending past the dining hall and out into the chill of the yard, I can see more inmates sitting on the ground waiting for the all-clear.

Just as the guards finish looking me over and giving me the nod, the alert ends and I join the population on the yard as inmates rise and dust themselves off. A few recognize me and nod. A few smile.

This is where I belong on Tuesday nights. Doing alcohol and drug outreach to the precious few inmates who choose to seek it. The United States has the single-highest documented incarceration rate and the largest prison population in the world. More than one in 100 American adults were in prison at the start of 2008. Three out of four inmates in this country have substance abuse problems, but only 10 percent of them receive any kind of treatment before their release back into society. More than 75 percent of California parolees find their way back into prison within a year.

On Tuesday nights, we meet in a schoolroom just off the main yard. California prisons are operating now at more than 200 percent of the planned capacity, and the yard is packed. Out here, the Blacks are lifting weights or shooting basketball, the Hispanics gather at their end, sharing food and blasting music out of a boombox, and whites gather in small groups walking laps around the field. It's chilly winter and they all wear woolen caps pulled down over the ears.

The classroom is warm and I usually stand at the door, shaking hands and greeting the willing ones as they come in from the cold. Michael remembers me and as he reaches the doorway, his face opens up, dropping out of what he calls his "yard mask". Considering the statistics, it's heart-breaking to see only 25 or 30 men at the meeting. But the ones who are here come consistently. Michael says the hour he spends at the meeting is the only time during the week that he feels as if he's no longer in prison. Hearing that is enough to keep me going.

For an hour, we speak openly about the madness of substance abuse. One inmate says he never had a problem but since he committed his crime under the influence, he's been ordered to attend the meeting by his parole officer. He has a life sentence and hopes by complying he may someday walk free. He's already been here 27 years and was arrested just after his 22nd birthday. Another inmate talks about the insane amounts of dope and liquor on his tier. Guards sell some of it. A third inmate talks about his cellmate, how the guy is in his face over staying sober.

I recognize one of the inmate's accents and ask if he's from the South. "Mississippi," he says, grinning. "My mama said if I ever left there I'd end up in jail. She was right."

One of the Hispanic inmates recalls downing his morning bottle of cheap wine and passing out on Market Street in San Francisco where tourists would step over or around him, or miscreants would urinate on him where he slept in the bushes. When you're beyond human aid, it's not a pretty sight. Now he's here, sitting beside whites and Blacks that he'd never acknowledge on the yard or in the cell block.

Christmas is coming and the suicide watch is on. Jeff shows me the tattoo of his eight-year-old daughter he has never held. Martin talks about what it's like to be free from the shackles of alcohol, but that his mind can sometimes still be his judge, jury, and jailer. One of the men reports that Governor Schwarzenegger hopes to kill the funding for our meetings, and it's all I can do to bite my tongue.

At the end of our hour, we stand up, hold hands, and recite the Lord's Prayer. Then, one by one, they file out of the classroom as they pull on their jackets, wool caps, and yard masks. Every man I have come to know through the hour disappears into the crowd of inmates in blue trousers, blue wind breakers, and dark wool hats. The guards peer down from the towers.

I climb from the yard into the warm cell block, past the open showers, beyond the desk where the guards are sharing ribs and french fries, along my yellow line where I walk as the only person who isn't wearing an inmate's clothes or carrying a deputy's weapon, past the tiers of cells that reek of marijuana and tobacco, and down the flight of stairs to the walkway that leads to the main gate. I hand my visitor's badge to the guard and sign myself out. It's Tuesday night, 8:30 pm here on the West Coast, and I'm in my car, back along the bright lights of Folsom's bustling waterfront bars and restaurants, heading home.


Bill Stankus said...

Folsom Prison certainly does look like a castle - I always thought it had a flat, gothic appearance. Lots of foreboding. It's strange to consider it was built in 1880, about 30 years after the gold rush, which was centered just a few miles away - in an area of dreams, myth and hard labor.

Nothing dreamy about addiction and prison life.

Char said...

I cannot imagine, and yes I'm glad that I can't, the life these men have. Both in and out of prison. I can't imagine the hopelessness. But, my family has been on the opposite side of an addiction. My ex-brother in law had a serious prescription drug habit that he has since kicked. He's working on his second year of being clean. Though he hasn't resolved other issues that lead to the addiction, at least he's sober now. And that is good for my nephews.

A Cuban In London said...

Honest insight into prison life. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

tangobaby said...

I just read your other post about being on the roof, and wrote that you are very brave.

But after reading this, you are braver than brave. You're Super Hero Brave and these men are very lucky to have you touch their lives. I know you'll tell me it's the other way around, but still, you're a hero.

So you'd better publish this comment.