February 22, 2015
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #371: The Sting, Part 1
Every Tuesday and Friday I go with our music volunteer, Sister Peggy, to teach choir on Compound 2 for both morning and afternoon program times. Not many other inmates from our Compound 1 go to the other compound, since staff tries to limit the movement for security reasons. However, inmates who try to pass contraband from one compound to the other have become “religious” in their efforts, signing up to attend smaller religious services, such as Buddhist, Universalist/Unitarian, or Wiccan, which only have services on one compound. That way, they can be escorted with their contraband hidden on their person to the other compound. Or, they can meet with their buddies in the services and bring back contraband.
This last Friday morning, after choir practice, one of my choir guys and I were headed back home to our compound with Sister Peggy, when we were asked to wait for all the other guys in yellow pajamas—the other inmates from our compound—who were just leaving one of the religious services. We waited for them then headed back to Compound 1. Just before we reached its gate, all fifteen of us were asked to stop, put our books and other personal belongings down, and face the center of the sidewalk. About thirty correctional officers surrounded us, most of them trainees.
They told us to put our hands behind our backs, thumbs up, fingers interlaced. (Go ahead. Try it. Points if you get it on the first try.) Everyone seemed to be in a very serious mood, so I chose to cooperate. But as they began to escort us to a building near Compound 3, where the “Mainliners” (active gang members) are housed, I couldn’t help but make an attempt at humor. “Oh, man,” I said. “You’re taking us back to the Main Line? I finally gave up the gang life this year, and now I’m gonna have to try to drop out all over again.” The inmates thought it was funny, but only a few of the officers laughed, that I could tell.
We were taken to a building called “R and R,” which does not stand for “Rest and Relaxation,” unfortunately, but “Receiving and Release.” It felt like I’d just been arrested, since I’d been pulled over and placed into handcuffs. But I was totally calm. It’s not like they could throw me in prison or anything, I figured, so why get nervous? Besides, I had no reason to worry since I hadn’t done anything wrong. At first, I thought it must be just a training exercise. I tried to start a rumor that we’d been selected for early release, but it didn’t really catch on.
Inside the building, with the young trainees watching closely, looking like La Palma Correctional Center was participating in “Bring Your Kid To Work Day,” the gang task force took over. That’s when I realized we weren’t here for the trainees’ benefit. One of us had probably been naughty. Very naughty. (Cue sinister music.)
I was third in line, facing a wall of holding cells, and no one was talking. The gang officers, the most feared and most powerful in the prison, took the first guy in line into a side cell. I quoted a line from Toy Story: “The Claw has chosen!” but wisely kept it low enough for just the guys on either side of me to hear. Then I heard the “chosen” inmate cough loudly, twice, and I knew it was going to be a fun morning at the beautiful La Palma Resort. Time for the ol’ strip-search.
It was finally my turn. Yay for me. Two officers impatiently waited for me to undress as they watched, which wasn’t nearly as romantic as it could have been if they’d played some saxophone music in the background, and left the handcuffs on. As it was, the experience is as weird for me as you can possibly imagine it would be for you. Especially the naked version of “Hokey Pokey” where you “put your right foot in, and you shake it all about,” then “turn yourself around” and such. Loads of fun.
I finally passed inspection, like a prize Shetland pony at the fairgrounds, but no one wanted me, and I didn’t win any ribbons. I hastily threw some clothes back on, then joined the first two guys in a larger holding cell where I finished getting dressed. We knew we’d have to wait for the rest of our group before we would be free to go, so we settled in for a long wait.
Though I had my pens with me as I usually do, I’d been asked to put my books into a large black bin. I never am without those books, except at visits, so now I felt really naked. I have a black three-ring binder with my music for choir and piano teaching curriculum in it. It has a piano keyboard on front and back and says “Christopher, Music Tutor.” Very gang-like. My other folder has just about every project I’m working on in it, in case I have a few spare minutes, such as letters I’m writing, a book I’m editing, and business plans I’m correcting. Really sinister stuff.
A captain was looking intently through every page of my binders and through every piece of personal property each of us had been carrying. I tried talking to a few of the guys, but it was soon clear that we were on very different paths and conversation was futile. I was hoping to at least get my Day Planner back while we waited, but no such luck. I keep detailed notes on, well, everything in my Day Planner, so it felt like I was missing my brain without it, though I don’t know what that actually feels like.
An hour passed before it was announced that most of us were free to go. One of us got three extra months in prison, one will get a few years extra, and one of us had his personal property seized. One of those three was me. More on this in next week’s letter.