432 | Different by Design

April 24, 2016
Sunday, 9:30 p.m.
Letter #432: Different by Design


Dear Family,

Life here at Golden State is WAY different from life at La Palma, and I am about to bore you with those details, which is why I led with “Life here is WAY different.” But for those of you who are the smart ones in the family, you will notice many similarities, namely, that it is still prison, and I am still in it.

Up until about a year ago, dorm-style prisons were reserved for the lowest-level offenders and those who were about to be released. Now, the time limit for staying in a dorm environment has been extended from just two years to twenty years. Lucky me, I now fall into that category, so I have more time left than everyone but one guy in my dorm. Either we’ll be the last two guys here or they’ll keep adding new guys, which would be nice because he doesn’t speak English.

When you walk into the dorm for the first time, you are hit in the face with the musty-stale smell of what I imagine to be the unholy marriage of a homeless shelter and a thrift store, and your eyes are accosted by evidence of the same. Bunks draped with laundry and sleeping bodies are everywhere; piles of blankets, cups, and papers strewn ever so carefully about; shoes line the floor space. Tiny walkways weave throughout the bunk jungle with lots of non-posted yet understood rules on who gets to utilize what floor space. I got bunk 73, the last bunk at the very back corner of the dorm. In these short two weeks, I’ve come to realize that, if given a choice to move to any bunk in the dorm, I’d pick mine. It is next to one of only five slender windows that look out onto the front of the prison. It has an open space next to it, and it is up against a wall, so I can prop my clothes and blankets up against it for ease of reclining as I write.

Rather than dealing with just one cellie at the end of the day, I get 85 roommates, all constantly talking, laughing, or snoring. And oh my gosh, can they ever snore! My two best friends are my left and right earplugs. For the past eight years, I have employed the use of a noisy fan in my cell, 24/7. By creating a constant hum of “white noise,” all the loud spikes in conversation, laughter, or dominoes slamming onto metal tables just faded into the background. Officers making their late-night rounds with walkie-talkie blaring didn’t bother me in the slightest. Now, with no fan, I have become one with the dayroom I always avoided.

A lone, unarmed security guard sits at a podium near the exit door, and his primary job is to unlock the door. Three televisions hung on the walls receive all manner of channels, and the program selection is made by a group of inmates. Guys from our dorm control them once every four weeks, and I have found that I have nearly nothing in common with those who choose the TV programs. I don’t care to watch sports all day, Spanish soap operas, or 80s music videos. I don’t need to keep up with some family I’ve never met or watch daily news broadcasts. I grew up without a television set, and I’m enjoying not owning one now.

Located throughout the dorm are 28 bunk beds and 32 single beds, known as “Cadillacs” because of their premium-like status and because no one probably remembers what an actual Cadillac looks like. I’ve been on a top bunk nearly my entire life, including most of my cell-living time, so I actually prefer staying on a top bunk. Besides, the bottom bunks aren’t good for us tall people who need more head room.

The crazy thing is, my two favorite benefits of being at La Palma were (1) how well the staff treated us compared to typical California corrections officers and (2) the easily accessible phones for contacting friends and family. And you know what? Those benefits are even better at this facility! From the three phones located in my dorm, I can make phone calls from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., virtually assuring I can get in contact with someone at the exact moment that is most convenient for them. And the staff, privately trained, is quite laid-back. With so few inmates at this facility, it is even easier to become known by staff as someone who is trying to benefit the prison and other inmates.

I’ve adopted a bit more cautious approach to sharing about my charges, choosing carefully who I think may benefit from my testimony, as I’ve done in recent years. One guy I felt prompted to tell is Hector, the young man who came with me from La Palma. He’d heard about me while at La Palma and told me he never would have chosen to talk to me. When I asked what changed, he said he’d been observing me while on our trip as I interacted with the staff and kept everyone entertained. Then, he said, he’d seen how it seemed I actually cared about people in our dorm, so he decided to “give me a chance” and get to know me. He and I have now spent several hours together as God has opened the door for me to disciple him.

Hector and his gang single-handedly spiked the murder rate in my city one year, and it took Hector’s front-page news stories and possible life sentences for him to finally disavow the gang life and drop out. A cellie told him about God, and yet recently he has fallen away, discouraged by prison Christians. God has given me wisdom as we’ve prayed together, and now I’m holding him accountable for daily disciplines, and he is attending church. God is good!

My concern about “too much time around other inmates” apparently isn’t a concern of God’s, as He will use me as He sees fit no matter where I am.