481 | Moving Day

February 3, 2020
Monday, 9:30 p.m.
Letter #481: Moving Day


Dear Family,

Moving Day. Yesterday was spent making sure goodbyes were said to inmate friends and staff, an odd ceremony of sorts I’ve not experienced except when leaving a country at the end of a missions trip. When else, where else, would you have just spent weeks in a crazy, stress-filled environment with people you developed meaningful relationships with, only to tell them goodbye understanding you most likely will never see them again? War deployment, perhaps.

I gave away everything I couldn’t take with me, like the overstuffed mattress I’d inherited from someone who paroled a few months ago.

I barely slept, partly due to late-night meaningful conversations and partly due to the 2:30 a.m. wake-up. About 25 of us were taken to the Receiving and Release department and separated into different cells based on where we were being transferred to. We were each handed a dark blue paper suit to put on over our boxers and then told to wait. Hours went by until we heard the familiar sounds of a big transport bus pulling up outside and boxes of shackles being brought inside. Apparently, the fun wouldn’t stop at just a paper suit.

As I made my way from my “holding tank” to the outside door, I had thoughts of the bus ride leaving California to be transferred into private custody in Arizona ten years earlier. Now I was being transferred back into the direct supervision of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

On the previous bus ride, I’d approached the officer who was barking orders and putting handcuffs on each of us. Hoping to indicate that I would not be a problem for him on his bus, I’d said, “How are you doing, Sir?” as I had extended my hands to him in exactly the position he’d requested.

He’d barked right into my face, “Shut up! I’m not your friend.” I’d decided not to invite him over for a swim party afterward. Maybe a long, QUIET walk on a beach …

Now that I was headed back into CDCR custody, I tried out the same line on the transportation officer getting ready to put on my handcuffs, waist chain, and ankle cuffs. “How are you doing, Sir?” I asked.

“Great!” he answered, genuinely. “How about yourself?”

Through chattering teeth, I managed to say, “I’m doing very well; thank you for asking!”

He said, “Don’t worry. This will take a quick second, and you’ll be on the bus where we have the heater on nice and warm for you.”

I thanked him, and I began to wonder if perhaps the CDCR had indeed changed its tone a bit since when I was under their rather cruel thumb ten years ago.

My first two years in prison were filled with officers mistreating inmates. One guard told me, “In training, they taught us to never turn our backs on you guys, and instructors said to us, ‘Treat them like the dogs they are.’” I wish we’d been treated as well as the officers most likely treated their pets! Now, ten years later, it seems that staff is much more interested in institution-wide rehabilitation, which plays out in even the simplest of interactions. We shall see, I thought.

I was first on the bus from our group, and I walked to the back where four guys were sitting. They were fresh from “reception,” the first prison you are sent to for observation during your first few months of incarceration. They had just chosen to “drop out” of General Population (GP) and were thus headed to Avenal. Usually, the gang drop outs and sex offenders go to Sensitive Needs Yards (SNY), like where I’ve been housed these last twelve years. But today is a new day in California’s prison system. We were headed for Avenal, which has blended yards called Non-Designated Program (NDP) yards. I knew that everything would be quite different, and boy, was I right.

The hour-long trip by car took seven hours by prison bus, thanks to a couple of long stopovers at other prisons to off-load some bad guys and take on other bad guys. At our final destination, we were all put into a large holding tank and called one-at-a-time to get our first box of personal property and be seen by a nurse.

Loud talking was forbidden, but a few in our group didn’t take the warnings seriously until we were all told to stand outside in the wind-whipped chill of a small fenced-in area, where we glared our thanks at the loud-mouths. (No, I wasn’t one of them. Yes, I am a loud-mouth, but I like to follow rules. #betterlatethannever)

It was after 6:00 p.m. when I was finally seen by the nurse and had smiled for my latest prison I.D. card photo. No one could ever accuse me of not having a good time! I picked up my belongings, which now included clothes, sheets, and a heavy wool blanket, and walked out of the R+R department with just two other guys who’d come with me on the bus. The rest were dispersed to some of the other five yards at the sprawling complex that is Avenal State Prison.

With at least 60 pounds of stuff in a large plastic bin and piled on top, I prayed for one of the numerous golf carts to mercifully be available. Nope. Instead, the 300-yard walk to my building felt as if I was carrying a golf cart for a full 18 holes.

Finally entering my building, a nice guy named Stanley came up to me and introduced himself as my bunkie. He’s completed 28 years in prison, and he hopes the Parole Board will grant his release later this year. Lifers are the primary difference between this place and the private prisons I was at for 10 years.

Exhausted from the lack of sleep, long day, and Herod-length trek, I plopped down on a bench near the phones, waiting my turn, with my Day Planner in hand. The biggest guy in the building—6 ‘4″, 285 lbs.—looked at the Day Planner and said, “Is that your paperwork (prison lingo for your list of charges)? Lemme see it.” Make that the first time I’ve been asked to show my paperwork in twelve years.

This mixed yard thing is going to be interesting. God is my Protector. He is all I need. I fear Him alone!