Prison Blues

Visiting time at Wasco State

Talk about tough doormen. You show up in denim. "No denim," they say and send you back to change in the car. You return in blue slacks, and they turn you away again: "No blue pants." You come back in borrowed black slacks that ride up your ass and won't button in front. These pass muster, but, "No sunglasses. No shower slippers." Finally, you come back again; they check your ID and keep it. They rubber-stamp your right inner wrist with the cartoon image of an ant flexing its muscles. You empty your pockets, remove your shoes and pass through a metal detector.

Then it's just a few heavy doors, electrified razor-wire-topped security gates and guard stations later, and you're inside Club Wasco.

Wasco State Prison sits north of Bakersfield, with grim, sun-baked concrete walls and electric fences. It looks like the ultimate prefab budget warehouse, made for warehousing humans.

My wife and I are visiting a friend who went in a year ago for possession with intent to sell, which is what they call it when you have enough marijuana to be throwing bags of it out your car window when you realize you're the object of a sting operation. I don't recall the whole story, except that Norm, let's call him, had arrived unexpectedly at his Costa Mesa cul-de-sac bungalow in time to notice it was being ransacked by police. He turned tail and started tossing. Not his finest moment, he says now, and it has been seen nationwide, thanks to a film crew from the Discovery Channel that was riding in one of the pursuit cars. I don't watch Discovery much. Is there an America's Most Hapless Criminals program on it?

Norm will turn 60 behind bars in a couple of months. He has a couple of more years to go before he gets to stop sharing a 12-foot-by-6-foot cell and stainless steel toilet with another inmate.

The hall where you visit has an institutional DMV vibe. Junk-food vending machines line one wall, with a yellow line painted on the Formica floor in front that inmates can't cross. You, who are allowed to bring $30 in change and $1 bills in, can buy microwave burritos or Fritos for your inmate.

You sit at round tables that are low to the ground so you can't pass contraband under them. Along with the guards in the room, you are watched through video cameras and one-way mirrors. Nonetheless, says Norm, there's no shortage of drugs inside, with heroin and speed being the most popular. "I can understand guys doing the heroin, to escape in their heads," he says. "But speed? What, are they trying to make sure they don't miss a minute of this?"

You read the same in newspapers, that drugs are readily available in prison, which raises a point I've mentioned before: If authorities can't keep drugs out of the most locked-down, unfree places we have, just how repressive will America have to become for the prigs in Washington to achieve their goal of a "drug-free America"?

Some inmates make wine out of grated apples, famed for its hangovers. Norm's staying clear of it all, wanting no blemish on his record that could slow his path out of Wasco. It's hard enough staying out of trouble. Racial tensions run high—a great many of the whites are skinheads—and a lot of the population has gang affiliations. It's not easy being a loner there, and sometimes it's impossible. When the inmates called a work strike to protest their smoking privileges being curtailed, the word went out in the yard that if you didn't go along, you'd take a beating. So you don't show up for work and take a demerit instead.

On the outside, Norm wasn't a drug lord. He made his living doing carpentry, and he was as good a man as I've met when it came to lending a hand to friends and neighbors. Whether you view the pot dealers in our midst as the scourge of youth or the succor of age, for a lot of them, it's just a sideline, like selling Amway.

He loved working outdoors. One could easily lose one's affection for the outdoors in Wasco's blast-furnace weather, but Norm signed up for a landscaping job so he could be outside more, and he wears a permanent sunburn. He's learning a lot, he says, and is allowed a small vegetable patch to grow tomatoes and peppers in.

He exercises. He's learning to draw and paint sport fish. He counts the days and is trying to make the best of it.

Looking at the other blue-clad convicts in the room, you have to wonder about their stories. Hard cases, mental cases, sweet-faced kids: Who was a predator? Who just had the wrong friends? Who had been hungry? Who is greedy or violent? Who was handy—like OC's Arthur Carmona—when the cops needed a perp? Who was there because he gouged us all for billions while creating an energy crisis that could have easily cost lives? Sorry, the last one was a trick question. You won't see that scum in this sort of place.

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