310 | Some Go; Some Stay

December 29, 2013
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #310: Some Go; Some Stay


Dear Family,

Well, you know the saying, “Out with the old; in with the new?” I’ve just said goodbye to my most recent cellie, Michael, who lived in my bathroom with me for just five months. But I’m a bit ahead of myself …

California has been ordered by federal judges to reduce their prison overcrowding, which was at one time over 180% of the original design capacity for the prison system. The state was found in violation of basic human rights by the U.S. Supreme Court, so they’ve had to comply. Sparing you the ten years of legal wrangling, suffice it to say that prisoners kept hoping for early releases that have happened in many other states once the federal government steps in. Me? I’d hoped for incentive programs such as classes and good behavior before the state just releases criminals. *Update 2019: I wrote this four years before incentives were given to all inmates, and five years before I ever saw my own date change. I ended up being given four months off for good behavior and two and a half years for taking college classes.

Well, recently, California “found” a couple of old prisons and has begun to move prisoners there to reduce the overcrowding, after filling county jails with excess convicts. These “new” old prisons are meant for low-level offenders only—typically those with less than two years left to serve of their sentences. This has prompted a mass exodus from this prison, with the nice, easy-going guys leaving and a fresh batch of new-to-prison tough guys taking their place. My unit manager told me we’ll even begin receiving some “lifers”—those serving life-sentences—who have decent in-prison records for good behavior. The change in my pod is already noticeable, for the worse.

Though it would be nice to be located closer to home, I cannot forget the differences from California prisons that I enjoy here. Even though Soledad’s prison was located just an hour from San Jose (the two new facilities are about five hours from San Jose) and now I’m more than twelve hours from home, I’m able to communicate much more frequently with those I love, thanks to the phones being in my dayroom in the pod I live in, rather than on the yard, available in Soledad only two or three times a week for one 15-minute phone call. Here, I can call anytime between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.!

Also, the staff here is trained to treat us with respect, which is a far cry from the malicious behavior of many California-trained guards. (One former California guard told me he was instructed during training to “treat them like the dogs they are.”) I’m truly blessed to be at a privately-owned prison in Arizona!

My cellie, Michael, was a decent cellie, though we didn’t have much in common besides prison. He was a staunch evolutionist despite the evidence (or lack thereof!) that proves that theory false, and he had quite the foul mouth. But I was grateful for his camaraderie and fierce loyalty to me. We had enjoyed a ton of laughs and shared a lot of great meals, cooked by yours truly. It was nice to have an intelligent cellie again—a rare find in prison—something I’d come to enjoy since having Tom as my cellie over a year ago. But, cellies move on, especially since all but one of mine have been serving less time than me. I still keep in touch with most of my former cellies, and Tom especially has continued the friendship once leaving prison for home.

The goodbye part is often tough—saying farewell to someone you’ve just been through a trial with. It’s as if you were passengers on a flight that crash-landed in a wilderness, and you survived on bad food and worse company for many long months. Finally, a kayak appears (because obviously this wilderness has a large body of water nearby) and has room to take one of you home. So, you say goodbye and play “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who stays and who goes. Prison is something like that.

I’m always happy for the guys who get to leave this place, even if it’s someone I’ve come to know well. I just need to get better at playing “rock, paper, scissors.” My New Year’s Resolution.